The story begins with Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji) embroiled in a furious sword fight with an unknown male aggressor. She kills the man- after his sister gets involved and is caught in the crossfire (the sister accidently getting struck to her eyes with a sword). As the man lies dying a strange black cat appears and starts to lick the body. We later find Akemi is in prison, however, on her release she heads up the Tachibana Yakuza clan. Taking over from her late father she enlists the help of some of the former female inmates from the prison to join the clan ranks. Akemi longs for a peaceful life but two rival clans- Dobashi and Aozora, seem intent on stirring up trouble for the Tachibana. Akemi is haunted by her past and worries she has been cursed by a black cat which seems to lurk around whenever there is trouble. Rival Yakuza boss Dobashi is approached by an unexpected ally; a blind woman Aiko (Hoki Tokuda) who is out to avenge the death of her brother, and she has her sights set on Akemi as the target for her retribution.
Cast and crew.
‘The King of Cult’ director Teruo Ishii was an extremely attention-grabbing filmmaker indeed. His (often) warped, sexualised, and violent stories are among some of the stand out moments of Japanese retro filmmaking. Ishii worked on a number of genres in his time. Starting out in campy sci-fi he moved onto gritty noir, comedy, yakuza, and pinky violence; building a powerful portfolio of films, which, as his career progressed became more unflinching and graphic. If we look at where Blind Woman’s Curse sits within this spectrum, it becomes apparent it is a bit of a wild card (given some of the themes I will cover in the highs and lows section). However it is important to point out this film was made at an exciting time for the director. This came when he was in the middle of making The Joys of Torture series for Toei (Blind Woman’s Curse was produced by Nikkatsu Studio)- a series which elaborated very graphically on the themes suggested by the title of the series, and which was far more explicit than anything that is featured in Blind Woman’s Curse. A year prior to this he had made the wonderfully outlandish and controversial Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)- which was banned for many years- and brought from that production the spectacular acting talent of Tatsumi Hijikata. Tatsumi Hijikata was an inspirational figure, a dancer who has been described as the architect of the dance movement butoh (an expression of dance that had a direct influence on J-horror later down the line). It was his ability to contort his body into weird and wonderful, unnatural movements which makes his performance as the hunchback in Blind Woman’s Curse such a marvel to watch. He put in a similarly outstanding performance as the crazed father in Horrors of Malformed Men, and has a small, but highly memorable part in Ishii’s Orgies of Edo ( 1969). The reason I am focusing on Hijikata is because even though he is not the leading role his contribution plays a highly significant part in the overall feel of the feature.
Cult icon Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood, Stray Cat Rock) steers the cast as the stoical leading lady, Akemi. Her performance is subtle as she follows the line of being bound by family duty and pride. She also provides some fantastic swordplay, especially in the film’s violent climax. Hoki Tokuda as the blind Aiko gives a strong performance, injecting into the story the tragic air of someone caught up in revenge. For the rest of the quite, extensive cast, Tôru Abe and Ryôhei Uchida stand out as the rival yakuza bosses Dobashi and Aozora. Ryôhei Uchidain in particular as Aozora who brings with him some fantastically silly black comedy elements-given he is decked out in a bowler hat and waistcoat complete with cane (think A Clockwork Orange style)- yet walks around with his modesty below the waist only protected by what looks like a sumo nappy. Although the Aozora character does not have much of a part to play his scenes are some of the most memorable moments, with a running joke that he needs to pay closer attention to his personal hygiene given in some of the dialogue from the other players.
This film, in line with many of Ishii’s other features, provides lavish production values. Rich colours, eye catching imagery, gore laden special effects, and beautiful cinematography, makes this a fabulous piece of cult filmmaking.
This Arrow Films release on Blu-ray/DVD combo comes with the following specs:
• New high-definition digital transfer of the film prepared by Nikkatsu Studios
• Presented in High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD
• Uncompressed mono PCM audio
• Newly translated English subtitles
• Audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp
• Original Trailer
• Trailers for four of the films in the Meiko Kaji-starring Stray Cat Rock series, made at the same studio as Blind Woman’s Curse
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx
• Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes, illustrated with original archive stills.
A note on the transfer, which is as spectacular as the film’s content, Arrow have yet again done a fabulous job on this release. The depth is great, the colours rich and natural looking. There is also a beautiful texture to the print. The picture looks flawless, I detected no obvious dirt or scratches, and it also appears to have no indication of sharpening (no haloing, no noticeable posterization, or loss of detail).
The Highs & Lows.
Blind Woman’s Curse is a feast for the eyes and senses. However before we focus on the highs it is important to note the story is somewhat convoluted. While the outline is straight forward, blind woman- aided by supernatural forces- out to avenge the death of her brother; the petty politics of squabbling clans serve to muddy the plot to some extent. Not that this matters in the overall scheme of things as it is still highly entertaining despite the messy narrative.
Director Teruo Ishii blends a number of styles into the melting pot to produce something seriously unique and mesmerising. A director known for his wide-ranging portfolio; as well as a penchant for the bizarre, grotesque, violence and naked ladies, with Blind Woman’s Curse Ishii mixes things up a little in one of the most memorable pieces of his lengthy career. Sticking to a yakuza theme which is prominent in a lot of his work, the emphasis here is on the violence (and what beautiful blood drenched violence it is), rather than the boobs and bondage that came later on in his pinky violence films. Ishii then makes the bold move of fitting in a supernatural/kaidan eiga slant- via a weird hunchback who can apparently morph into a cat- thus lending the film a level of the fantastique. The use of the cat is deeply rooted in Japanese tradition. It marks the symbol of a creature that straddles the divide between the two worlds of the physical and otherworldly. The cat has been used throughout Japanese horror, especially in the kaibyo subgenre, as something to signify a supernatural threat. What Ishii seems to have done with Blind Woman’s Curse is infuse this fascinating sub-strand into the very real world of yakuza politics, making for a unique and fascinating piece of storytelling and providing a Japanese folklore edge.
Ishii who was also known for the prevalence of eroticism in his later films approaches this element with subtlety for Blind Woman’s Curse. He takes a restrained approach with some tinges of the ero-guro to be found here and there, but nothing which matches the levels of say the dual dwarf rape in Orgies of Edo- the erotic elements playing out in an understated way between Aiko and her strange hunchback/feline companion. It is worth mentioning, however, for fans of Ishii’s more explicit material this may seem a little underwhelming.
If you consider the feature as a whole, it has a brilliant circus sideshow flavour. Ishii focuses on traditional themes such as family loyalty, honour and pride but ladens on some avant garde, theatrical and flamboyant touches. The little flourishes of black comedy also add to give the film some added zest. While some of the more macabre moments, make this film appealing to those with a darker nature.
Stand out set pieces include a visually striking grotesque themed stage show, featuring our friend the hunchback, a creepy scene with a line of waxen heads, torture by water, skin stripping, plenty of samurai sword fighting, tattooed ladies. There is also the finale showdown on a fantastical set- complete with swirly clouds- (that incidentally seems to have had an influence on the Uma Thurman/Lucy Liu standoff in Kill Bill Vol 1). Add into that some brilliant performances, and plenty of the red stuff and we have a prime example of unforgettable Japanese cinema.