Blind Woman’s Curse (Japan, 1970)
Directed by the notorious Teruo Ishii, who is best known for his many entries into the cinematic world of Erotic/Grotesque, Blind Woman’s Curse is a strange mix of horror and period-piece yakuza conventions. In a time when studio contracts were notoriously strict, Ishii was one of the few directors who actually worked for various studios, not just one. This film is a Nikkatsu production and Ishii was best known for his torture-based exploitation titles made with Toei. Blind Woman’s Curse is essentially the third part of a series that Ishii started with Nikkatsu called the Rising Dragon trilogy. The Japanese title (Rising Dragon: Ghost Story) and the film’s theme song both reference this fact, but this entry is such a departure from the previous two films (Rising Dragon: Iron Flesh, Rising Dragon: Soft Flesh Exposed) that many do not connect this film along with that series. The first two features were female yakuza stories, similar to Blind Woman’s Curse, but the addition of horror movie visuals and an absurdist plot make this a film entirely of its own creation.
Our film begins with Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji), who is second in line of the Tachibana clan, taking on a group of rivals who are dispatched of easily enough. As she takes her last slash on a young man, this young man’s sister runs in to defend him but ends up with a slice across her own face. As she is curled on the ground, bleeding profusely, a black cat begins to lick at her wounds before jumping upward and clawing at Akemi’s eyes. This final bit within the sequence, where the cat attacks Akemi, turns out to be a dream. This is a nightmare that Akemi has had since the real incident occurred some time in the past. After spending her time in prison for this slaughter, Akemi is back at home in charge of the Tachibana clan. She meets up with a young loner with chivalrous tendencies named Tani, who takes a liking to the Tachibana clan due to their good-hearted nature. Akemi is truly an honorable woman, but unfortunately there are many local gangs that are not. Dobashi is one such ruthless gangster and he has goals of turning the Tachibana clan against another powerful group, the Aozora clan. Dobashi imagines that with both groups out of the way, he could spread out and take over. Slowly, Dobashi starts to enact his plans and eventually Tachibana clan members start to turn up dead and with the impressive dragon tattoos on their back carved out of their skin. The cards are already stacked in Dobashi’s favor, but he soon runs into an ace in his deck: a mysterious blind woman with supernatural swordsmanship! This woman wants to help Dobashi’s clan break up the Tachibana clan, but what is her goal and is it true that she could very well hold a curse over Akemi’s clan?
Teruo Ishii himself has referred to the movie as ‘nonsensical’ in the past and the rather convoluted plot indicates some of that criticism is worthy, but while watching I couldn’t help but enjoy myself! The combination of horror movie aesthetics and the classic yakuza formula goes down as being far more palatable than one might at first think. The combination of the two elements doesn’t come across as seamless, but it works in giving the film a sense of spontaneity. In one scene we may watch as the leading member of the Aozora clan sticks his nearly nude rear-end right in the face of the audience, only to switch things up with a ghastly basement full of decapitated heads just a few short minutes away. The discrepancies in mood work well for breaking up what might have been a monotonous affair otherwise.
This mix of horror elements has been claimed (by Ishii himself) to come at the behest of studio heads and some have said that it was Ishii’s idea to mix things up (according to Meiko Kaji). Knowing the impromptu atmosphere of Japanese cinema during this time and within Nikkatsu, chances are it could be a little bit of both. Whatever the situation may be, it is due to this genre bending that we are likely talking about the film today. These horror elements come in very visual forms. The movie never actually confirms whether or not supernatural actions are at play, but the appearances are certainly there. Every trip made to the theater where Ane, the blind woman, works is like a descent straight into hell. Crawling atop the roof of this horror-house are white painted kabuki style showmen who have a ghostly appearance. The lighting goes from being straightforward to some strange blue and green tints that project an otherworldly feel that makes you question how logical or scientific this film will really end up being.
The visual appearance of the movie is probably where it shines the most. The horrors of the theater are simply the beginning of our film’s aesthetic qualities. I love the moments throughout where “spooky” characters start off in full close up with green light shining on their face only to have them pull away from the lighting and join the rest of the scenery. There is no real reason for these lighting changes and there is no explanation for the green light at all, but it is part of the silly and adventurous style that Ishii was going for. The conclusion to the film also features one of my alltime favorite set pieces in cinema. A obvious and over the top piece of set design, the background is a matte painting of a dark and twisted sky that is quite literally spiraling in on itself. The doomsday appearance matches the final duel that will eventually take place. Fantastic stuff!
There are long periods in the film where she is actually missing from the main story, but Meiko Kaji does a fantastic job in her first big leading role. The project was a gift of sorts for the young actress as she had a tremendous amount of success leading up to the film and her time being groomed as a developing star had finally come to a payoff. Kaji does well in carrying the film whenever she is on screen and manages to stretch out quite a bit from what fans may know of her from the Female Convict Scorpion films. She delves into some comedy here and there and plays her role very straight when dealing with the dramatic horrors of having to watch her friends die, one at a time, right in front of her. There are many other familiar faces within the cast including Toru Abe (The Human Condition, Girl Boss Guerrilla and the rest of the Girl Boss series) and Makoto Sato (The Executioner, Chushingura) amongst others.
The Blind Woman’s Curse does have its issues, I can’t deny that. As beautiful as the film is and as interesting a watch as it is, there is a lot of content in here you have seen done better elsewhere. At the end of the day though, the question becomes: was it fun? The answer to that is a resounding yes. A entertaining watch for fans of Japanese cinema or Meiko Kaji, I’d highly recommend you search it out via Netflix if you haven’t already had the pleasure.