Yakuza action meets gothic horror in a 1970s Japanese movie classic.
Modern Japanese genre cinema is often considered by Western audiences to be a bit bizarre, with good reason – there is nothing quite like the blood-drenched, lunatic worlds of films like Machine Girl or Dead Sushi in American or European cinema, and no Western horror movies have reached the nightmarish extremes of films like Ring or Audition. But really, what is made now is nothing compared to the films of the 1960s and 70s. These older movies are less excessive – only just, it must be said, when you look at the Baby Cart movies, the Lady Snowblood series or some of the other outrageous films that have only made their way outside Japan in any quantity in relatively recent times – but also less knowing; while the deranged madness of, a film like Helldriver is very deliberate and plays up to international audience expectations, these older films, aimed almost entirely at a domestic audience, are just weird by default, at least when compared to Western contemporaries. And few are weirder than Blind Woman’s Curse, an often incomprehensible but always gorgeous mix of yakuza action and supernatural horror.
Directed by the prolific Teruo Ishii, who also made strange, excessive and exotic films like the infamous The Joys of Torture/Tokugawa series and The Horrors of Malformed Men, this film – one of the last Nikkatsu horror movies before they shifted their attentions to softcore porn – is close to incoherent much of the time, focusing more on style and imagery than in trying to create a coherent narrative. Ostensibly the final episode in a series of more straight-forward female-fronted yakuza films, it stars the incomparable Meiko Kaji (later to find fame as Lady Snowblood) as Akemi Tachibana, head of a dragon-tattooed yakuza gang that we first see causing havoc in a gang fight during the opening titles. This is one of the most arresting opening sequences you’ll ever see, beautifully shot, dramatic and stylish, and it sets the scene for everything that is to come in terms of visual imagery. During the battle, she accidentally slashes the rival boss’s sister (Hoki Tokuda) across the eyes – as the girl falls to the ground, a black cat appears to lap up her blood. Horror movie fans will know that this is never a good sign.
Akemi spends the next three years in prison, before returning home to find a new gang, the Dobashis, moving in on her territory, assisted by a traitorous Tachibana member. The Tachibana gang, meanwhile, have decided to put their criminal pasts behind them, though the provocations of the Dobashis, trying to provoke a war between their rivals, doesn’t always make that easy. And to make things worse, the blinded girl has returned as part of a travelling circus of horrors, and – assisted by a hunchback – is determined to take her revenge on those responsible for her loss of sight. Before long, Tachibana gang members start to turn up dead, their dragon tattoos brutally cut from their backs.
While the film somewhat fudges the horror aspect (is the cat curse that Akemi believes herself to be under just in her mind, or is it real? It’s left for the viewer to ultimately decide), there’s no arguing with the grand, grotesque visual style on display here. This is a movie awash with vivid, lurid colours and arresting images as we explore the grotesque world of the carnival – a creepy and unnerving place even by the standards of horror movie carnivals – and the scenes of flayed flesh and corpses are as potent as any straight horror movie in their shock value and notably graphic for 1970. The film piles on scenes of crude but splashy gore and while the oft-stated claims from the critics of the time that the Japanese audience demanded buckets of blood and oodles of sadism in their horror movies were more a racist WW2 hangover than reality, this film is certainly very bloody, giving it a definite horror movie atmosphere.
But there’s also a lot of slapstick comedy that feels rather out of place, at least to modern viewers. Comic relief tends to be something that rarely travels well and Japanese comedy relief always seems to be a bit overdone. The mugging to the camera, the crude comedy and the odd cartoonish moments don’t fit at all well with the moody mystery or the knife fight scenes. You could argue that they do, however, add to the overall oddness and confusion of the film. This is a film that has such an uneven tone that you are never quite sure what to expect next. The fact that characters are often ill-defined and the story jumps all over the place makes this a difficult film to follow at times, and after a while, I realised that the best way to enjoy it was to simply set back and let the spectacle wash over me.
Fans of Meiko Kaji should note that she is unfortunately not given much to do during the film. Her character dithers more than Hamlet until she’s pushed too far, and those viewers who have relished her hard-assed action scenes in other movies will probably be a bit disappointed not to see her in full vengeance mode earlier. This is a film that doesn’t rush to get to where it is going, and while that’s admirable, you rather wish it would show a bit more urgency early on.
Still, while this is not the best work from either star or director, Blind Woman’s Curse is gloriously mad, visually astonishing and – unless you are a hardened Japanese cult movie viewer – unlike anything else you will have seen.
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