Blind Woman’s Curse (Kaidan nobori ryû)
Japan (1970) Dir. Teruo Ishii
Led by their new female boss, Akemi (Meiko Kaji) the daughter of their recently murdered leader, the Tachibana clan attack the rival Gouda clan in revenge but during the fight Akemi’s blade accidentally strikes and blinds Gouda’s younger sister Aiko (Hoki Tokuda). Almost immediately a black cat appears from nowhere and begins lapping away at Aiko’s blood. This image haunts Akemi while she serves a prison term, believing she is cursed for her actions. Five years later, with the Tachibana clan now a peaceful and reformed group, the girls from the clan are found dead with the distinctive dragon tattoos on their backs having been carved off.
One look at the eclectic output from the prolific director Teruo Ishii and the “King Of Cult” nickname bestowed upon him is well deserved. Making his name with the children’s sci-fi TV series–turned-film series Super Giant Ishii later turned to geisha comedies before exploring historical torture methods for his Joys Of Torture series, then moving onto horror films which came under to the genre ero-guro (“erotic-grotesque”) which begat his pinky violent period before moving onto biker films. Somewhere in the middle of this comes Blind Woman’s Curse which features elements from all of these genres with a little surrealism thrown in for good measure, all crammed into 84 minutes.
Ishii sets out his agenda for this film from the opening scene in which the vengeful Tachibana clan show up in the pouring rain at Chez Gouda to seek restitution. They whisk off their kimonos to reveal on their backs a frieze of a dragon with Akemi’s back showing the head and her five male henchmen with the body and tail on theirs. The claret doth flow in seconds and it is Akemi’s untrained blade that catches Aiko’s eyes as she pleads for her brother’s life. To the modern eyes this will be hammy as hell (and probably was in 1970 too) but the sight of the black cat feasting on Aiko’s blood is still quite disturbing.
Naturally we are to assume that Aiko will be the one behind the killings of the clan girls but there are other possibilities to consider! Two rival clans, Aozora, whose eponymous head is a modern dressed bowler hat sporting chap (played by Ryôhei Uchida) and the more traditional Dobashi (their figurehead portrayed by Tôru Abe) are trying to muscle in on the Tachibana territory with Akemi refusing to resort to violence. However a traitor in Akemi’s ranks is setting up both sides to force an all out war so he can place himself at the top of the yakuza chain. Unfortunately for him the arrival of Aiko and her loyal hunchback assistant Ushimatsu (Tatsumi Hijikata) threatens to throw the proverbial spanner into his works.
It should be pointed out that the story is set – or supposed to be set – in a historical time period in with everyone dressed in your typical Edo period attire, with simple amenities, weapons, amusements, architecture, décor and other aspects of the era. Yet for some reason, Aozora’s modern (for the 70’s) wardrobe with a bowel hat, sunglasses, shirt, tie and waistcoat can only be seen as a deliberate anachronism for either a deliberately satirical purpose or because Ishii had taken some halucigenics! As if to underline this, Aozora wears a loin cloth and not trousers, yet Dobashi and his lot are shown in one scene driving about in a small truck!
Ishii extends this surreal touch to some of the visuals, often without purpose with the possible assumption that this was during the period when society was just coming off the psychedelic period of the late 60’s and its influence was still in the air. In the scene after Aiko makes her public debut as a blind knife thrower, Ushimatsu takes the stage for a bizarre dance routine while later on, the search for a missing Tachibana girl takes us to a circus tent with a bizarre array of waxwork heads – or are they?
One scene in particular will have a sense of familiarity about it – the climactic fight sequence. The reason for this is because the two combatants are magically transported from the raging battle at the Dobashi headquarters to an apparent outside location, white sand underfoot, oddly placed racks of pottery, all under an ominous black starless sky with twirling clouds. If you haven’t got it yet then all I need to say is “Tarantino”. Yes the fight scene between O-Ren Ishii and the bride in Kill Bill Vol 1 takes place in an improbably snowy back room which is very reminiscent of the above mentioned scenario – not to mention Tarantino’s character shares the same surname as this film’s director…
Some of you Quentin fans will be saying “Ah but that was inspired by Lady Snowblood!” which reveals another connection – the star of the Lady Snowblood films was of course Meiko Kaji, who also sung the song The Flower of Carnage for that film which was used in Kill Bill! Perhaps a little stiff on the sword swinging front here, Kaji’s incredibly striking photogenic presence is hugely evident here and the role of Akemi served as a profitable leaping block for her role as Yuki and Female Convict Scorpion a few years later. While Kaji is the epitome of grace her co-stars are hamming it up big time – mostly the men – sadly without a hint or irony but always with gusto. Only Hoki Tokuda as the blind Aiko matches Kaji for her stoicism and dignity.
For fans of cult Japanese cinema Blind Woman’s Curse might not immediately scream “classic movie” but will be a curious and worthwhile reference point for what was to follow (for both Meiko Kaji and the genre itself), while for others it be a simple oddity. However this superb looking Blu-ray release from Arrow Films is a good enough incentive to check this film out and see for yourself.