“Sleepy Eyes of Death 3: Full Circle Killing” (1964)

by A.J. Hakari

"Sleepy Eyes of Death 3" poster

Don’t worry. I doubt it’s anything erotic enough for you to be worried about.

When Raizo Ichikawa played Nemuri Kyoshiro in the first of twelve Sleepy Eyes of Death adventures, it was clear that this was no ronin to be trifled with. A self-professed nihilist, he holds as much contempt for those perverting the samurai’s image as he does for those clinging to its most dated aspects. But for a swordsman of such supposedly jaded caliber, Kyoshiro sure lets himself get dragged into other peoples’ business in the series’ third entry, Full Circle Killing. Rather than play both sides of a conflict against one another, he basically swings his blade for the downtrodden here, giving us a decent chambara piece that’s just not the dark character study it should be.

Our tale begins with Kyoshiro, ever convinced that true honor is nonexistent, wandering into some class warfare. Sir Katagiri (Jun’ichiro Narita), the deranged offspring of a Shogunate concubine, has his mind set on rising through the political ranks as quickly (and violently) as possible. In addition to covertly slaying all other heirs standing in his path, Katagiri has taken to filleting local refugees as a means of sharpening his rare sword collection. But if Kyoshiro hates anything, it’s a prick with power, which he demonstrates by generally being a fly in the would-be Shogun’s ointment and making sure the vengeful villagers don’t do anything to get themselves killed. Soon, Kyoshiro has earned the ire of multiple psychos, from card-hurling assassins to scorned hookers, supplying his notorious Full-Moon Cut technique with plenty to slash through.

Full Circle Killing feels every bit like the lightweight filler chapter that turns up in any franchise setting out on an edgy path. This is only the third movie into Kyoshiro’s saga, and yet the next level in his development remains untouched by the end. I had hopes that this would become something like Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, wherein the “helpless” peasants and the bad guys coming after them would be on equally nasty footing. It’d sure tie into Kyoshiro’s philosophy about the world at large being no damn good, but nope, he sort of falls into defending your basic lot of colorfully simple folk — and in spite of the phenomenally dumb mistakes they regularly make, at that. I don’t know if it’s because of their bad decision-making skills or if Kyoshiro’s poker face is that great, but nothing about their encounters convinced me that he’d do anything but leave these bumpkins to dig their own graves.

Now Full Circle Killing isn’t an awful samurai movie, per se; it’s just not as befitting of the Sleepy Eyes of Death mantle as it needs to be. There’s a little discussion about Kyoshiro’s cavalier nature and how his legendary blade seems to thirst for violence, but it’s not developed in any deep or important way. He’s just another grumbling antihero with a heart of gold, which would be alright if he were starring in some other flick. Still, Ichikawa is in fine fighting shape, a sword-swinging James Bond who lobs off appendages one second and beds tea house honeys the next. He handles himself in battle like a boss (watch how he takes out some thugs on a giant set of steps without looking like he ever unsheaths his blade), and his opponents here are struck from the classic boo-hiss baddie mold. Katagiri is an entertainingly petulant punk with a back story so complex and interesting, you wish more had been done to connect it to the plot.

I’m sure I’ll revisit Full Circle Killing down the road. It’s a lark and an overall fun watch, but seeing the story’s pitch-black undertones go by untapped gets to be a tiring burden. But if you’re not as particular with the series and just want to see Kyoshiro cut henchmen to ribbons with cool detachment, I can’t say that Full Circle Killing comes up short.

(Click the following links for my reviews of Sleepy Eyes of Death 1: The Chinese Jade and Sleepy Eyes of Death 2: Sword of Adventure.)