For fans of Japanese horror and exploitation films, perhaps no other director is more renowned than Teruo Ishii. Beginning his career in the early fifties for Shintoho Studios, Ishii was involved in several high-profile art films as assistant director. By the end of the decade he had graduated to director where his early output consisted mainly of a series of children’s sci-fi films collectively known as the Super Giant films. While Ishii was extremely happy at Shintoho, unable to keep up with the bigger studios in terms of filmic output, the studio went bankrupt in 1961, forcing Ishii to move on. He landed at Toei Studios where he spent the next three decades directing some of the most delirious and violent films made in Japan at the time, pioneering the “ero-goru” (erotic-grotesque) genre including the Shogun’s Joys of Torture series, Horrors of Malformed Men, and many others. While Blind Woman’s Curse is a precursor to Ishii’s later ero-goru films it still shows off his tendencies toward violence and arterial sprays as well as some truly surreal set pieces.
Akemi is the head of her clan who is attacked by a rival clan. In the ensuing fight, she gets the better of the rival clan’s leader, but just as she is ready to put her rival to rest, his daughter intervenes, stepping in front of Akemi’s sword, which slashes her across the eyes and blinds her. She is horrified to see a black cat lapping the blood from the woman’s face. Years later, as the two clans continue to fight for territory, a strange blind woman inserts herself into Akemi’s clan. Akemi doesn’t know it yet, but she knew the blind woman in an earlier life. This woman isn’t actually there to help Akemi but to take her down as revenge for her father’s death as well as for the loss of her eyesight.
Curse of the Blind Woman is a strange amalgamation of horror, revenge, and Yakuza yarns all mixed into one. Most critics classify it as a horror film but these elements aren’t overly emphasized. Japan has a long history with ghostly black cats, going all the way back to 1914, according to the audio commentary. And, while there are certainly some supernatural elements to the story, this isn’t necessarily an overt horror film.
As he is wont to do, Ishii uses a roaming camera and slow motion choreography beautifully. The opening clash of swords by the rival clans, in the driving rain nonetheless, is fantastic. I’ve seen several Ishii films and am always a bit surprised by the vibrancy of the films. Ishii uses color to great effect here as well. And Arrow’s release is very crisp so the colors really pop. Of note is the use of gel lighting in several scenes which are reminiscent of classic Mario Bava films of the same period—the film is truly beautiful. Filmed entirely on set and with a climactic swordfight complete with painted sky, the film also reminds one of the classic Japanese omnibus Kwaidan in sections.
But Ishii is at his best during the (too brief) scenes of violence and surrealism. While there are some arterial sprays and a few other bloody bits—the flayed back of a clan member who had a back tattoo forcibly removed stands out—the film isn’t nearly as violent as some of Ishii’s other outings. But there are some remarkably eerie and surreal bits that surround the character of a hunchback who periodically appears throughout the film. These scenes are standouts for their remarkable use of color and atmosphere and are genuinely creepy, especially introductory scene of the hunchback at what looks to be some kind of spooky sideshow that includes a cook using various body parts for an unholy stew.
The story doesn’t always make perfect sense, but one gets used to that when viewing Japanese horror films. Besides, the delirious visuals and gorgeously choreographed fight sequences move the film along at a pace quickly enough to discourage too many questions. And at 85 minutes, the film isn’t overly long to begin with. Overall, this is a fun film that would be a good introduction for viewers unfamiliar with Ishii’s work.
Another reason for fans of Japanese exploitation to see the film is the presence of the gorgeous Meiko Kaji. Lensed early in her career, she had yet to break out into the superstar she would become in short order. The first Stray Cat Rock film had just been released, and it was this series that made her a star. Of course, she is better known in the West for her roles in the Female Prisoner Scorpion and Lady Snowblood series, but her beauty and acting prowess as Akemi, the cursed clan leader, is on display throughout the film. She hadn’t yet developed her stoic glare that earned her fame later in the seventies, but the rest is clearly there.
Arrow’s BD + DVD combo isn’t as loaded with extras as we have come to expect but there are several Stray Cat Rock trailers as well as the original Japanese trailer for Blind Woman’s Curse. However, the best special feature is an excellent audio commentary by the very knowledgeable Japanese cinephile, Jasper Sharp. Sharp traces the history of the Japanese studio system and the development of Ishii’s career and contextualizes the ero-goru genre of films within Japanese cinema history. He also enlightens us about the ero-goru author Edogowa Rampo, whose writings Ishii based several films upon, and also discusses Meiko Kaji’s career, among many other highlights.
Blind Woman’s Curse is an overlooked film in the Ishii oeuvre and a really fun movie as well. If you are interested in purchasing this disc, you can go to: http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa