Serpent’s Path (Hebi no michi)/Eyes Of The Spider (Kumo no hitomi)  

Japan (1998) Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

A special “two for the price of one” review since both films are on the one disc and they are essentially companion pieces to each other. Like many directors, Kiyoshi Kurosawa can’t resist a challenge – he was tasked with making two films in succession, using the same cast and crew with stories based on a similar theme, in just two weeks!

First up is Serpent’s Path, written by Hiroshi Takahashi. Two men, Nijima (Sho Aikawa) and Miyashita (Teruyuki Kagawa), abduct a low-level yakuza Otsuki (Yurei Yanagi) for murdering Miyashita’s 8 year-old daughter Emi. After being tortured, Otsuki names his superior Hiyama (Shiro Shimomoto) who is brought in, also denying ordering the kill.

However, it seems Hiyama recognises Miyashita as a former colleague and part of their gang’s snuff video ring, which Miyashita refutes. And with Hiyama’s gang on the hunt for Miyashita following the abduction, a plan is hatched to pin the blame on someone else to secure their freedom – yet this plan was Nijima’s idea.

In a film already full of twists this is another for the viewer to keep track of. Nijima may not seem like it at first but he is the central conceit – a quietly enigmatic figure happy to assist Miyashita in his vengeance with no personal stake, whilst in his daily life he is an advanced maths professor, whose class includes a young genius girl oddly resembling the late Emi.

Acting as a leveller for Miyashita’s boiling rage, Nijima’s calm approach to the treatment of the captives along with his emotional detachment makes him appear more dangerous than a furious and unstable Miyashita. Is there a maniac behind this placid demeanour waiting to break out or is there something deeper reflecting his scientific vocation?

Like many of Kurosawa’s films, the focus is on the darker side of human behaviour. Whilst he isn’t probing the criminal mind in search of answers like in Cure, Kurosawa instead looks at the victims of a crime and the need for vengeance. Miyashita is understandably fraught over Emi’s death, but his obsession is oddly clinical, carrying with him a copy of the coroner’s report and a video of Emi which he plays to his captives.

But is it natural to exact his own revenge or should he let the police know? At first we are on his side but once Miyama recognises him as a former underling in their salacious video business, this picture becomes a little clearer in that he is reacting as a yakuza would, albeit with a new layer of fog descending on it that puts his past career under scrutiny by way of judging his character.   

Given the restraints of the time and budget there is a lot to admire about Serpent’s Path whilst the shortcomings do tend to stand out. The violence is rather unconvincing in a “one take and done” way that could have been improved with more rehearsal, and the lack of depth incorporating Nijima’s teaching job and he Emi lookalike into the script screams extraneous filer for the sake of it.   

As valid as these cavils are, Kurosawa achieves a lot within the remit of the challenge, his cast don’t let him down either and for 85 minutes, he has our attention with a solidly crafted and deftly twisting – and twisted – thriller.

The second film, Eyes Of The Spider is scripted by Kurosawa and Yoichi Nishiyama and opens with Nijima (Aikawa) beating the snot out of the man who murdered his daughter six year earlier. When the man dies, Nijima buries the body then returns to his daily life as an office worker, but feels empty and haunted by his actions.

One day, Nijima runs into an old friend Iwamatsu (Dankan) now a Yakuza, offers him a job rubber stamping documents but is soon bored again. Iwamatsu notices this so he allows Nijima to join in with the killings, which gets his mojo back. Then Nijima is summoned by Iwamatsu’s boss Yoda (Ren Osugi) to secretly report on his friend then, when the time comes, kill him.

It’s may not strictly be the same Nijima here but there as many similarities as there are differences, something Aikawa is able to get across in his performance (bearing in mind they were both a week apart). The themes of loyalty and betrayal within the Yakuza set-up remain but take on a different slant here, whilst the revenge motif is the launching point rather than the whole story.

Something about Eyes Of The Spider makes it feel more like a Takeshi Kitano film than a Kurosawa film – the abstract humour, like the senior gang boss having Nijima chase him like they were kids, or one gang member learning to roller skate around the office, is Kitano-esque in its loose congruity.

There is no real twist per se in this tale either, since the hierarchy of the Yakuza is always open to challenges so you expect them to be on their toes in recognising where the next stab in the back might come from. This is a calmer, much quieter film until the final act, and unlike its companion doesn’t offer any depth to the characters beyond their tropes or added quirks.

Eyes Of The Spider being the more pedestrian of the two films means it doesn’t hold up as well as Serpent does but again, we have allow for the fact that just a week earlier Kurosawa, Aikawa, and the crew were working against the clock on another film – a different type of film fatigue must have set in so anything they put out would have been a miracle. That it is halfway decent is good enough.

In this day and age of CGI, pre-planning and legal wrangles a project this would never happen but 21 years ago, give an auteur a script, a camera and some willing actors and yet get two interesting curios from a master filmmaker.