“Pleasure (…) is to be extracted from the visuals (…) so beautifully framed by the cinematography, and from the way Meiko Kaji with her mesmerizing performance synthesizes the narrative’s mix of genres.”
The King of Cult: Teruo Ishii. With such a prolific and eclectic career, it is no wonder that Ishii is called this way in Japan. And while his oeuvre is eclectic, a certain attraction to the more darker and the more weirder side of humanity has always guided him. This is for instance apparent in his choice to direct the 8 entries of ‘Joys of Torture’ series (1968–1973), a series investigating torture in Japan in a historical context.
His attraction to the dark side of the subject is also evident in the love he had for Edogawa Ranpo’s horror narratives; A love that made him become one of the most important cinematographical translators of Ranpo’s oeuvre. Like with Edogawa Ranpo’s narratives, Ishii’s style began to be denoted as Ero-guro. This influence of ero-guro is also evident in Blind Woman’s curse, one of the last mainstream narratives Nikkatsu produced before switching to Roman Porno.
Late 1920s, pre-war Japan. Akemi (Meiko Kaji), the dragon tattooed successor of the Tachibana clan, has to kill Goda, a boss of a rival clan. In a fight with this gang, Akemi accidentally slashes the face of Goda’s sister Aiko (Hoki Tokuda), who wanted to protect her brother. She falls down bleeding. A black cat appears and starts licking the blood of the victim. Suddenly the coal-black beast attacks Akemi, cursing her.
Three years later, after serving her jail sentence, Akemi is faced with the Aozora-gumi, a rival clan who desires to take over her territory. An additional problem arises when members of the Tachibana family start to die one-by-one, each death a stark reminder of the curse she is burdened with.
While Blind Woman’s Curse‘s narrative has thematic tones of loyalty, revenge, penance and mending one’s ways, the narrative does not aim to explore these themes deeply. These themes – common themes in Yakuza-eiga, solely act as an essential narrative structure to fit in the hotchpotch Blind Women’s curse has become. The narrative is at once a Yakuza-eiga, a sword-fighting narrative, and a comedy narrative – with Ryohei Uchida’s butt as comical attraction – mixed with the ero-guro Ishii is so famous for. The hideout of Dobashi (Toru Abe) for example has a room of half-naked opium addicted prostitutes, besides trapdoors and hidden mirror doors.
Blind Woman’s Curse doesn’t aim to present a cohesive narrative or to fully develop or to answer all the plot-points it introduces. It is pretty clear that this narrative is first and foremost an exercise of style and a weird genre-mix that just aims to be fun and entertaining (Narra-note 1, narra-note 2). Unsurprisingly, this entertainment is mainly to be found in the visuals as such and at the level the eye (of the spectator) in the act of looking. And while this is already evident in the opening sequence of the narrative and in some other sequences that follow, it is only the final showdown that fully embodies this stylish enjoyment. Beyond the abundance of blood-splatter, which will surely appease the sword-fighting audiences, the visual poetry is to be situated in the way the (framing of the) dragon-tattoo – from head to tail – is entwined with the framing of the sword-fighting as such.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, that the cinematography of Blind Woman’s Curse is infused with some true visual artistry. And while this is most apparent in the framing of movement (i.e. the thoughtful application of slow-motion, zoom-ins, followings shots and other moving shots), this artistry is also evident in the attentive way in which characters are positioned in the narrative space and in how effective the lightning is handled in certain scenes (cine-note 1). Shigeru Kitazumi, the cinematographer, is really able to express his talent. And Teruo Ishii, he is successful in using Kitazumi’s talent to compose Akemi’s narrative in a very engaging way, even though the blend of genres lacks some fluidity. Furthermore, Hajime Kaburagi further supports the enjoyment of the narrative with the rhythm his music introduces.
Meiko Kaji is a truly exceptional in her role as Akemi and her mesmerizing presence is sensible captured and even exploited by the cinematography. The many close-ups – and in some instances even extreme close-ups – framing her face and her piercing gaze underline her elegant beauty, turning her elegance into a vehicle that keeps on enticing the male gaze.
People who expect to find thematic depth in Blind Woman’s Curse will be left disappointed, but this expectation constitutes a misunderstanding of the narrative as such. Blind Woman’s Curse is a narrative that needs to be enjoyed at the level of the surface of the narrative, at the level of the flow of imagery. The pleasure for the spectator is to be extracted from the visuals, the visuals so beautifully framed by the cinematography, and from the way Meiko Kaji with her mesmerizing performance synthesizes the narrative’s mix of genres.
Narra-note 1: As the narrative is first and foremost an exercise of style to be enjoyed at the level of the gaze, one shouldn’t think to deeply about the narrative. If one does think deeply about the narrative, it rapidly becomes clear that some plot-aspects remain undeveloped.
Narra-note 2: The presence of Tatsumi Hijikata as the hunchback has no real substantial narrative value, but his Butoh performance, a performance art he developed, is nevertheless a strange experience that, coupled with his other short appearances in the narrative, enforces the weirdness of the narrative space.
Cine-note 1: One aspect that is also worth mentioning is Ishii’s pleasing use of geometry to create a frame within a frame.