Teruo Ishii was one of the most unique directors to emerge from Japanese cinema’s genre scene during the ’60s and ’70s. He was adept at a style of genre blending in which commercial concerns would sit alongside bits of freeform weirdness and occasional self-satire. For example, the two Executioner films he did with Sonny Chiba are action films that double as madcap, slapstick satires of the form and Horrors Of Malformed Men is a horror film that dives headfirst into Freudian surrealism.
One of Ishii’s most unique films in this regard is Blind Woman’s Curse: though nominally a “woman gangster” flick designed to fit into a popular Japanese cinema trend, it is crossbred with the “ghost cat” film (another, less-explored Japanese film stle) and further dosed with a dash of gonzo humor. The heroine is Akemi (Meiko Kaji), a gangster who accidentally blinding a woman during a gang fight and finds herself haunted by dreams of a bloodthirsty cat she saw on the scene.
Years later, she is trying to run a gang without violence but finds her mettle tested by the machinations of rival boss Dobashi (Toru Abe), who is trying to take her gang apart from the inside with a traitor. Things get tougher when a mysterious blind female samurai (Hoki Tokuda) shows up and joins Dobashi’s side. However, she is armed with more than a sword – she’s in a league with a mysterious, cat-like circus performer (Tatsumi Hijikata) with supernatural abilities. As the ever-stranger story continues, it is revealed that they have unusual reasons to be getting involved in the gangland melee.
Blind Woman’s Curse offers an interesting example of the unpredictability of Japanese genre fare during the twilight of its peak years. The studios’ rush to fill theaters with product led the studios to take interesting chances to keep the product flowing, both with types of film and with unconventional filmmakers.
Ishii took full advantage of such opportunities here, offering a movie that shifts between genres with an almost mischievous sense of glee. Blind Woman’s Curse can hit expected gangland beats when it wants to: there are plenty of blood-spurting swordplay scenes and the plot has all the expected life-of-a-gangster melodramatic beats. However, the traditional elements are offset by unexpected jolts of lowbrow humor, like a recurring gag about an upstart boss with hygiene problems and a goofy character in Akemi’s gang who’s always mugging for the camera and ogling its female members.
That said, the biggest surprise is the way Ishii handles the horror elements, which have all the candy-colored funhouse surrealism of Horror Of Malformed Men when they occur. For example, the entrance of the cat-like performer plays like an LSD-inspired performance art piece. Juggling so many different styles and tones ensures that Blind Woman’s Curse isn’t always a balanced experience – a stretch of the film in the 2nd half where Akemi and her gang drop out of the action makes it feel like you’re watching another film for a few reels – but the unpredictability and experimentation make it an engaging little ride throughout. There’s easily two or three movies’ worth of plot here and it only runs 84 minutes!
Another plus with Blind Woman’s Curse is the professionalism that offsets its wild experimentation. Having a major studio’s resources and backlot ensures that this is slick, artfully made production and Ishii lives up the production values by directing with vigor and visual élan. Kaji’s brooding presence makes a compelling anchor for the film and she is aided nicely by a sultry turn from Tokuda as her nemesis and also Japanese action film regular Makoto Sato as a likeable, independent-minded local who aids Akemi and her friends.
In short, Blind Woman’s Curse is the kind of eccentric genre fare tailor-made for cult film audiences. Don’t worry about the abrupt tonal shifts or the topsy-turvy juggling act that serves as a plot: instead, it should be viewed as a crazy, rollercoaster experience that has to be enjoyed on a moment to moment basis.
Blu-Ray Notes: Once available on DVD from Discotek, Blind Woman’s Curse has recently been reissued as one of Arrow Video U.S.A.’s first blu-ray/DVD combo releases. The transfer is impressive: minimal print damage, sharp detail and vivid colors. The Japanese mono audio sounds robust and English subtitles accompany the track.
The main extra here is a commentary track from Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp. He covers an impressive amount of terrain in a short time: there’s an in-depth overview of Ishii’s career as an independent production, thoughts on the influence of “ero-guro” fiction on the film’s macabre elements and how the film reflects the change in style going on in Japanese studios at the turn of the ’70s. Sharp paces his material well and ties the many threads of scholarship together neatly, making this a very educational listen for fans.
Also included is the film’s original trailer, sans subtitles, and a string of four trailers for the Stray Cat Rock film series. The latter make an interesting view for Japanese genre film fans as they were made around the same time as Blind Woman’s Curse and show the early stages of Meiko Kaji’s stardom.
(Full Disclosure: this review was done using a check-disc blu-ray provided by Arrow Video U.S.A. Thus, it does not discuss the liner notes included in the completed edition of the film. However, the disc used for the review reflects what buyers will see in the finished blu-ray.)