The location: Japan. The time: unspecified, but probably some point between the wars. Seeking revenge for the murder of her beloved father, Akemi (Meiko Kaji), the new female boss of his Tachibana clan, leads her warriors in a deadly samurai sword-swinging slam down of a confrontation with the mob responsible -- a violent rival Yakuza gang, led by unrepentant Boss Gouda (Bumon Kahara). During the carnage, the beautiful Akemi (who is showily tattooed with the prodigious head of a dragon that arches gracefully across her upper back) accidently injures and permanently blinds Gouda’s young sister Aiko (Hoki Tokuda) after the girl defensively inserts herself between her brother and Akemi’s final avenging sword swipe … A black cat mysteriously appears from nowhere at this point, to greedily lap at the bright blood that duly spills forth from the gushing facial wound.
Three years later, and the noble young yakuza mistress now emerges from prison with a retinue of loyal female bodyguards in tow -- cellmates befriended while serving her time behind bars, and now complementarily ink-tattooed with discrete portions of the body and tail of the dragon whose head is depicted along Akemi’s shoulders. Akemi once more asserts control of her father’s gang, but this time preaching peaceful coexistence with the other yakuza mobs instead of war. However, a new constellation of rivalries and allegiances has come into being since the dispersal of Gouda and his gang, due to the recent appearance on the scene of Boss Aozora (Ryôhei Uchida): a swaggering, extravagant and eccentrically attired yakuza warlord who wears a western bowler hat with the upper portions of a natty business suit, but combines this concession to foreign modernity with a flimsy traditional loin-cloth down below that impishly exposes his butt cheeks!
The unscrupulous crime boss Dobashi (Tôru Abe) is the head of a third gang of troublemakers, and seeks to deliberately start another war between the rival gangs so that he can profit from silently muscling in on Tachibana territory while everyone else’s attentions are diverted elsewhere. Aiding him in the task of framing the blameless Aozora in the hope of provoking Akemi into attacking a rival district unjustly, is the treacherous Tatsu (Shirô Ôtsuji),a former Tachibana henchman to Akemi’s father who’s now planning his own coup, having been promised control of the main Tachibana stomping ground once Dobashi takes over the territory. But other much more macabre influences are also at work and influencing the fate of all players concerned: Aiko, the blinded sister of the dead Gouda, is now a knife thrower in a gaudy traveling carnival show, and also a lethal swordswoman who seeks revenge on Akemi and her loyal gang while being assisted in her aims by an uncanny ghost cat and a thoroughly demented hunchbacked court jester-like figure, murderously attuned to doing her every bidding. When this carnival-esque trio of the deranged and the damned strategically team up with Dobashi and his conniving yakuza crew, Akemi and the Tachibana gang’s troubles truly begin with a vengeance.
This synopsis, although replete with one or two colourfully idiosyncratic details, might on the surface otherwise pass for that of a typical samurai or yakuza gangster flick, albeit one that derives its enigmatic antagonist figure from a blend of then-popular Queen Bee female assassins and Zatoichi-style traveling blind swordspersons, and has her mesmerizingly played here by Hoki Tokuda (the eighth wife of the novelist Henry Miller no less). High production values are certainly in evidence in this lushly adorned and lavishly costumed big studio outing from Nikkatsu – ostensibly one of its final entries in the youth-orientated action and gangster flick market from which the studio had built its success back in the 1960 before falling box office take forced it into handing its production slate over entirely to its newly emerging Roman Porno films, a variant of the Japanese Pinky Violence sex genre that it had recently conceived in order to compete with increasing competition from television in the early-seventies. However, “The Blind Woman’s Curse” is indeed a most peculiar late example of the studio’s more traditional fare, improbably combining not just the Yakuza swordplay and Bakeneko ghost cat genres, but also adding a whole host of disparate elements that get thrown into a very large pot that brings forth a virtually uncategorisable example of Ero guro nansensu – the Japanese name for a particular kind of work that is concerned literally with the erotic, the grotesque and the nonsensical. This element is the key to understanding the skittish, mercurial, unpredictable and downright bizarre trajectory undertaken by the wayward plot of this movie. For this is a Teruo Ishii film; and Ishii is the director who probably put Ero guro on the map cinematically thanks to the notorious movie he’d completed just before he set to work on “The Blind Woman’s Curse”, namely his supremely twisted psychedelic horror-exploitation odyssey “Horrors of Malformed Men” (1969).
Ero guro was actually a term that first came to prominence in the interwar years and was associated with the pulp mystery & horror writings of Japan’s answer to Edgar Allan Poe, the author Edogawa Rampo (born Taro Hirai in 1894) whose short fiction work combined influences from Poe and Conan Doyle and invariably included an element of the strange and the bizarre amongst the details of their offbeat detective plots. Rampo was writing during a period of Tokyo’s cultural history in the 1920s and ‘30s that is often described as being the equivalent of Germany’s Weimar Republic, when bourgeois tastes in art and entertainment lent themselves towards a celebration of the decadent and the hedonistic, and when a fascination with ‘the abnormal’ was in the air. Rampo himself was apparently intensely interested in the displays of deformities and other human oddities that could, at the time, often be experienced in the sideshows which cluttered Tokyo’s Asakusa district. Rampo’s literary influence can be found pervasively throughout subsequent Japanese fantasy cinema, particularly in that of its supernatural and horror output but also in the subject matter of its erotic films, since an interest in what quiet often at the time were considered to be aberrant sexual pathologies formed as much a part of Edogawa Rampo’s fictional world view as did his obsession with the marginal and the esoteric; in the Ero guro nansensu genre (originally a pejorative term coined by Rampo’s critics) they all tended to be melded into one.
Teruo Ishii had always nursed ambitions of adapting Rampo’s work for the screen, but it wasn’t until 1969’s “Horrors of Malformed Men” that he got the chance to do so. Before then, working first for Shintoho in the ‘50s and then for Toei Studios after Shintoho’s collapse, the prolific director was able to indulge his predilection for the outré over an astonishingly wide range of genres, including numerous gangster flicks, heist movies and swordplay epics shot throughout the ‘60s, his most notable successes being the ten-film-strong Abashiri prison series which helped put Ken Takakura on the map as a major league star. When Toei began dabbling in the new Pinky Violence genre, Ishii was perfectly willing to come along for the ride by overseeing their “Joys of Torture” series -- the popularity of which eventually provided him with the chance to branch out into that special part-experimental, part-mainstream mishmash of a sub-genre that was to be a creation all of his own and which was exemplified in “Horrors of Malformed Men”. This film took the twisted plot-lines of half a dozen Edogawa Rampo stories and concertinad them together to form a wild, improbable, kaleidoscopic melange of bizarre images and deranged storytelling, coupled with a no-holds-barred taste for the grotesque and the horrific. In this ground-breaking work of the macabre the narrative seems to undo itself as it goes along, spiralling farther out of logical control with each new development, each new twist adding yet more outrageousness to an already elaborately nonsensical narrative. Nevertheless, the film was beautifully made, and shot with real imagination and with an artistic, avant-garde seriousness being brought to bear on otherwise wholly pulp and exploitation-orientated material.
“The Blind Woman’s Curse” was Ishii’s next assignment and the importance of “… Malformed Men” to the way in which he approached this project cannot be overestimated. Although the screenplay (co-written by Ishii and Roman Porno scribe Chûsei Sone) has nothing whatsoever to do with the work of Rampo, Ishii seems to be using the movie as a vehicle to shoehorn in as many competing genre elements as possible, in much the same way as he’d previously managed to blend into one film all the many outrageous plot twists taken from different Rampo stories. There’s a little bit of just about everything Ishii had ever done previously included somewhere in this movie: a women behind bars scene kicks things off near the start; numerous choreographed swordplay fight sequences (like the balletic slow-motion opener which takes place in a torrential rain storm), many of them also host to geysers of arterial blood spray and bright red splatter. There is gangster intrigue (a plot to discredit Tachibana by planting opium in the main marketplace on their territory) centred on yakuza honour and loyalty, and a hint of comedy and even of romance in the form of a burgeoning relationship between two minor characters; plus bizarre torture-based exploitation scenes in the main villain’s lair and, of course, the ghost cat supernatural angle -- an extra element apparently demanded by the studio after Ishii had already begun shooting!
Instead of reacting against such studio interference, though, Ishii appears to have relished the jarring and nonsensical juxtapositions created by the collision of supernatural and yakuza material, at least judging by the way things go down here: because, taking his cue from his previous Ero guro masterpiece, Ishii once again lets rip with some kaleidoscopic, baroque imagery of the grotesque come the middle portion of the movie. There’s even more of an art influence in the handling of the film's carnival oddities, which strongly call to mind such names as Fellini and Jodorowsky; a sensibility that becomes evident from such an overtly lush surrealist handling of colourful material. At one point contorted naked female bodies are seen to writhe on the roof of a traveling circus revue; later, rows of decapitated heads and a cooking pot full of body parts are woven into the intrigue, and the crazy performance antics (which include a dancer simulating sexual ravishment by a small dog!) are often bathed in a swirling psychedelic light vortex. The Japanese avant-garde dancer and underground performance artist Tatsumi Hijikata is primarily responsible for the sudden intrusion of arthouse vibes that come with the film’s second act re-introduction of avenging sword-throwing stage performer Aiko ... who target’s Akemi’s tattooed female bodyguards in order to punish their boss for her part in the death of Aiko’s father, and for her own loss of sight, by murdering them, and slicing the tattooed skin from their backs as a sign.
Originally a founder member in the 1950s of the scandalous modern dance troupe Butoh, Hijikata pioneered a form of dance movement modelled on and grounded in the observation of physical handicap and mental illness, making his work often controversial in the dance community but absolutely perfect for Ishii’s world of the grotesque and the bizarre. A crucial addition to the madness that links both “Horrors of Malformed Men” and “The Blind Woman’s Curse”, Hijikata’s performance in each is as much a demonstration of modern dance and performance art as it is one of character acting. In this particular film, he plays a wild-haired hunchbacked loon in a kimono and knee-high socks, who lollops and cavorts throughout the movie as servant to the graceful blinded avenger, displaying an array of jerky facial tics and erratic movements accompanied by unearthly growls and manic shrieks. In both films his presence marks the moment that each one of them goes completely off the deep end and becomes almost more a demonstration of a countercultural art happening than a straight-up genre film. It also means that besides the ghostly black cat, the bloody death scenes and the garish images of topless concubines in Dobashi’s lair (who loll in mirrored rooms while smoking copiously from opium pipes), there is also plenty of leeway for Ishii to include some of his torture-based exploitation in the mix when we visit the villain Dobashi’s dungeon prison, where a host of pulp adventure staples are given a 1970s psychedelic make-over despite the ornate surface 1930s setting.
At the peaceful eye of all this action, absurdity and grand-guignol spectacle there resides the film’s dignified and always charismatic female lead: Lady Snowblood herself, Meiko Kaji -- in a role that hotly anticipates her outing as Japanese cinema’s most famous sword-wielding female screen assassin. Although it was while she was still working at Nikkatsu that the actress changed her screen name from Masaka Ota to Meiko Kaji (this was her first credited appearance under the newly assumed moniker), she soon fled the company for Toei Studios when Nikkatsu switched to making Roman Porno, not long after completing the Studio's flower power-era female action “Stray Cat Rock” youth series, in which she had also just proven herself to be equally as alluring when playing a ‘70s hipster rebel chick. Toei would help further mould Kaji’s image with the violent “Female Convict Scorpion” series, but it is “Lady Snowblood” and its sequel that remains the most iconic expression of the actress’s particular combination of beauty, grace and deadliness; here she also gets to sing her own theme song in the lead up to the climactic confrontation with her blind nemesis, another trend-setting first!
That confrontation also acts as a wonderful showcase for the craft and care that is evident throughout this picture, taking place as it does against a cycloramic backdrop that conveys a spiral cloud formation rendered in an elegantly expressionistic style. Despite all the deranged content, Ishii’s dynamic camera always manages to track the elaborate flow of action with a fluid sense of motion and mobility, while Shigeru Kitaizzumi ably captures the glossy production values at work here with his colourful cinematography, despite the strangeness of what’s on offer. Hajime Kaburagi’s music also manages to synthesis all these populist and esoteric influences with a score that lurches from cues which incorporate traditional sounding instruments to those that feature more modern progressive rock influences in the form of fuzzed up electric guitars, et cetera. In short "The Blind Woman's Curse" is pure nectar for fans of cult cinema.
Although cigarette burns still appear sporadically throughout this transfer prepared by Nikkatsu Studios, their high definition digital restoration of “The Blind Woman’s Curse” ensures the Blu-ray and DVD discs in this Arrow Video dual format release look suitably vivid and colourful. Extras consist of a thorough and authoritative audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp; the movie’s theatrical trailer and a trailer for each one of Meiko Kaji’s “Stray Cat Rock” movies, soon to be released by Arrow and looking to be a whole bunch of fun if these 'groovy' madcap clips are anything to go by. The reversible sleeve features original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx; and Tom Mes provides a very readable essay for the accompanying booklet which considers Teruo Ishii’s place in the development of the Ero guro nansensu sensibility of Japanese cinema during its heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s …
All in all, this release makes for a very satisfying treatment of a charmingly bonkers piece of early ‘70s Japanese cult outrageousness.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!