Blind Woman’s Curse Blu-ray Review (originally published in 2015)
Akemi (Meiko Kaji) is a dragon-tattooed leader of the Tachibana Yakuza clan. In a duel with a rival gang, Akemi slashes the eyes of an opponent and a black cat appears to lap the blood from the gushing wound. The cat along with the eye-victim, go on to pursue Akemi's gang in revenge, leaving a trail of dead Yakuza girls with their dragon tattoos skinned from their bodies. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Teruo Ishii is a filmmaker all exploitation/horror fans need to be made more aware of. He was the mad genius behind episodes 1 through 6 of the groundbreaking sci-fi serial Super Giant (Japanese: Sūpā Jaiantsu; aka: Atomic Rulers, Invaders from Space, and Attack from Space in the US), the shockingly violent Shogun Joys of Torture (Japanese: Tokugawa onna keibatsu-shi, 1968, the first in a series of period piece torture movies), and the beautifully twisted Horrors of Malformed Men (Japanese: Edogawa Rampo Zenshū: Kyoufu Kikei Ningen, 1969), along with nearly 100 other feature films, shorts, and television episodes. He continued making singularly strange genre hybrids (shot on digital video) until only a few years before his death in 2005. Blind Woman’s Curse (Japanese: Kaidan Nobori Ryū, 1970) was released in the wake of Horrors of Malformed Men and, though it isn’t quite as extreme, it is another fine example of his use of vivid color, dynamic editing, and expansive camera work. In accordance with many of Ishii’s other great movies, it is also a mash-up of multiple subgenre significations that were enjoying overlapping popularity in Japan at the time it was released. It was presumably designed to please every exploitation fan in the audience – part samurai drama, part period yakuza thriller, and, at times, even a bit of an absurdist comedy.
The tone flips and turns from scene to scene. A precedent is set early, when the opening title’s samurai battle devolves into a slow-motion nightmare. As Akemi jolts awake, Ishii appears to be assuring us that this is only a bad dream, but we soon discover that parts of the dream are memories. For the rest of the film, we can only assume everything that is happening is real, even the seemingly impossible. Soon after, ‘low’ comedy is imported in force as a villain is introduced via a zoom into his bright red thong, which is worn below mockingly western gangster garb. He and his gang reappear on several occasions to torment characters in similarly comedic ways (everyone tells him his crotch stinks) and Ishii is sure to squeeze his thonged butt squeezed into the frame at every possible convenience. Horror-themed violence and imagery is then peppered liberally between scenes of typical jidaigeki melodrama and fabulous samurai showdowns (the climax is especially memorable). Some of this has a relatively ‘realistic’ basis, like a scene where Tani (Makoto Satô) uncovers a hellish opium den. The blind assassin that is hired to kill Akemi’s clan (Hoki Tokuda) removes the tattoos of her victims and leaves their bodies in disturbing positions (hanging from a tree, crammed into a glass box) for their friends to find.
Other frightening events aren’t so easily integrated, specifically a number of inexplicably supernatural twists (the original Japanese title, Kaidan Nobori Ryû, translates basically to Ghost Story Rising Dragon, so the sudden appearance of ghostly elements probably wasn’t a surprise to Japanese audiences). One of Akemi’s compatriots is seemingly possessed after the bodies of other clan members are dumped on their doorstep and the ‘spell’ culminates in him gouging his own eyes out with a shard of glass. During the most disturbing and bizarre sequence, the characters visit a sort of circus where they witness half-nude women that growl like tigers, grotesque freak show maladies, a man cooking what appear to be human body parts, and an avant garde dance co-starring Tatsumi Hijikata, the mime/performance artist/Butoh dancer that was featured heavily in Horrors of Malformed Men.
In an interview with Chris D (Chris Desjardins) for Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film (I.B.Tauris, 2005), Ishii verifies that he was told to add the kaidan (ghost story) stuff after filming had already commenced. This kind of last-minute, everything-for-everyone, studio mandate is, I think, a key component in the formula that makes these movies so special to fans and frustrating for neophytes. Yet, despite the challenges that these tonal shifts pose, the basic plot is easy to follow, which is more than I can say for other written-on-the-fly, B-movie productions. It may be a bit nonsensical in terms of the random asides, but Ishii doesn’t get so lost in the weeds that the basic narrative suffers. Not that coherent storytelling is a prerequisite for the entertainment value in such movies.
Blind Woman’s Curse was an early leading role for superstar exploitation actress Meiko Kaji. She was on the verge of breaking out in a big way with a series of mini-franchises, including the Stray Cat Rock movies (Japanese: Nora-neko rokku; aka: Alleycat Rock, 1970-71), the Female Convict Scorpion movies (aka: the Sasori series, 1972-73), the Wandering Ginza Butterfly duology (aka: the Gincho series, 1972), and the Lady Snowblood duology (Japanese: Shurayuki-hime, 1973-74) – her most memorable role and a specific inspiration for Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003). She worked with Ishii, Yasuharu Hasebe, Toshiya Fujita, Kinji Fukasaku, and Shunya Ito (the who’s who of the era) and culled a reputation as an incomparable femme fatale in Japanese cinema.
Unless you had a bootleg version of a Japanese VHS on your shelf, Blind Woman’s Curse debut on North American home video via Discotek Media’s DVD. Like most of that studio’s releases, it is out-of-print. The film made its HD debut via Arrow’s UK arm. That Blu-ray predated this RA one by almost a year and there was some fan speculation that, because the US press release declared that it would feature a “new” HD transfer, some of the minor gamma and contrast level problems would be corrected. That is not the case and the two transfers match right down to the artifacts. For the record, there is room for improvement – the blacks are a bit weak and grey, but not to the degree seen in Arrow’s own Lady Snowblood disc (which has since been surpassed by the Criterion disc). The problem does not dull elemental separation or textures, however, white levels are only occasionally blown out as a result of the lighter appearance.
Gamma and general age aside, this is a very nice, highly detailed, and extremely colorful transfer. The vibrant Fujicolor hues pop beautifully without any notable haloes or cross colouration and the textures/patterns are about as complex as the material will allow (soft and shallow focus ensure some of the wide angle images are a bit mushy). Grain is consistent, aside from a few of the darker scenes, where the corners of the frame cake-up a smidge. Iffy source condition and scanning quality cause the top and bottom of the frame to sometimes flash white during the more jagged/sudden edits and the image sometimes warps.
The original mono sound is presented in uncompressed PCM 2.0 audio. This is a stronger than some of Arrow’s other Nikkatsu studio releases (at least the ones that were released early-ish in the two company’s partnership), including more consistent volume levels and cleaner, more natural dialogue. The sound effects work is balanced and relatively well layered, including a handful of really loud moments that feature no notable distortion issues. Again, the single channel treatment prevents a particularly deep sound field. Hajime Kaburagi’s music doesn’t crop up too often, but has some standout moments, including tracks sung by Kaji herself.
Commentary with Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp – Another ace effort from the co-editor of Midnight Eye and writer of Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema (FAB Press, 2008). Sharp is full of critical information and capable of unraveling it quickly and pleasantly without overwhelming the listener. Despite having read up on Ishii before watching Blind Woman’s Curse, revisiting some of his other work, and discovering new facts about Nikkatsu Studios while watching the extra features on Arrow’s Massacre Gun Blu-ray, I learned plenty about the production and filmmakers here. Note that the older, OOP Discotek Media DVD featured a commentary with Chris D, who, along with Sharp and Midnight Eye’s other editor, Tom Mes, completes a trifecta of invaluable experts on the subject of Japanese B-cinema.
Trailers for four of the films in the Meiko Kaji-starring Stray Cat Rock series (Wild Jumbo, Sex Hunter, Machine Animal, and Beat ‘71)
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