Watched May 25, 2012
Geir Friestad’s review:
Sword Devil finds director Kenji Misumi and star Raizō Ichikawa taking a break from their successful Sleepy Eyes of Death series to tell a minor and slightly silly samurai tale.
Ichikawa stars as Hanpei, who is either just a little odd or possibly a high functioning idiot savant – the movie is never really clear on this. In any case, young Hanpei is classless, and on his death bed his adopted father urges him to apply himself and move up in the world by becoming skilled. Hanpei promises, and is soon reknowned as a master florist. This brings him into the local lord's fold, where he is tasked to brighten up the castle with his flowery skills. Later on, a chance encounter in the forest with a rōnin and master of iaijutsu inspires him to take up the sword and learn the skill of the quick draw. This eventually causes him to move even further up the career ladder, now as a master assassin for the castle's chief of security. After breaking his sword on a mission, he claims a new one from a nearby temple notorious for being the resting place for evil swords. Hanpei's thirst for blood begins to grow…
Misumi had already made somewhat of a name for himself within the chanbara genre in the early '60s with the first couple of the aforementioned Sleepy Eyes of Death movies, the first entries in the Zatoichi series, a two-part adaptation of Daibosatsu tōge (the novel Kihachi Okamoto would later do his own adaption of, known to us as Sword of Doom) and, perhaps most especially, with the uniquely stylish Kill. The next decade would see him tackle, probably most famously, Koike and Kojima's legendary Lone Wolf and Cub series, taking the samurai class' blood pressure to hitherto unknown heights. In any case, it's hard to perceive what exactly Misumi and writer Seiji Hoshikawa were trying to tell us with this minor diversion in an otherwise stellar filmography. Hanpei is such a remote character that it's hard to empathize with or at times even understand his motives, making the movie a bit of a drag whenever the screen isn't exploding with action. It's also, probably unintentionally, pretty silly. One of Hanpei's skills is the ability to run really fast (he has no problem keeping up with galloping horses), which is simply conveyed by undercranking the camera. Unfortunately, this only has the obvious, comedic effect. It's Benny Hill with hakama and swords – only Yakety Sax is missing.
All of this is very unfortunate, but as is often the case with otherwise mediocre samurai movies, the action sequences come to the rescue. The fight choreography is splendid, and Hanpei's lightning fast iaijutsu is more than ably performed by Ichikawa. You may end up snoozing a bit inbetween the bouts, but the fights are sure to wake you up. They are so cool.
Not a complete misfire by any chance then, but Sword Devil never amounts to more than a footnote in Misumi's otherwise fine career behind camera, and Ichikawa's in front of. Genre fans will want to see it, though.