The inimitable Meiko Kaji’s first starring role, Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) is an aggressively strange yakuza movie with a touch of the supernatural. It’s so strange the Arrow Video release calls it ‘delerious’ multiple times on the cover, and for once, that doesn’t feel unfair – from the bold use of colour to the costuming to the off-kilter horror elements, the film is a phantasmagoric treat.
The main plot thread is fairly simple. Akemi (Kaji) is the head of the Tachibana yakuza clan, and in the opening battle – shot in slow motion in the rain, because of course it is – she accidentally blinds the sister of a rival gang’s leader. A black cat, never confirmed as a bakeneko but dripping with echoes of Japanese folklore, leaps in and laps up the blood of the blinded woman. Thus a curse is born that pursues Akemi until several years later when another rival gang tries to usurp her territory, and she has to fend them off while her comrades are picked off, one by one.
It sounds like the supernatural elements should be quite important, but they’re relatively underplayed. Indeed, a large portion of the more grotesque parts of the film literally take place in a theatre, a kind of horror show within the film itself. This features a performance of Ankoku Butoh, a kind of expressionist Japanese dance, by the movement’s founder Tatsumi Hijikata. Instead a lot of the film’s strangeness comes other elements that come out of left field, like the leader of a gang of hoodlums who wears a top hat, spectacles, a waistcoat, a vividly Joker-esque purple shirt, and a red loincloth. The camera lingers on his exposed buttocks. Elsewhere, the other yakuza gang muscling in on Akemi’s territory operates out of a palatial brothel-slash-opium den, complete with mirrored shoji and elaborate water-based torture mechanisms and traps.
The spectacularly dated effects work doesn’t help the movie to a modern eye. It’s difficult to distinguish between what might be intended to be supernatural within the film’s world, and the intentionally fake, like the contents of the theatrical horror show. Some techniques, like the reversed footage that allows the hunchback to leap up on rooftops, hold up, but at one point the distinctly taxidermied cat jumps at the screen and the wires are literally visible (something that may have gone unseen in earlier, lower definition presentations).
I’ve seen the film placed in the ero-guro, or erotic grotesque, genre. Perhaps the director’s other films are better, or clearer, examples of the genre, but for me, Blind Woman’s Curse struck me as a precursor to modern Japanese imports like Takashi Miike’s at times equally violent and bizarre oeuvre. Films like Ichi the Killer and Yakuza Apocalypse that straddle a line between intriguingly weird and bizarre for the sake of being bizarre.
It’s not the strongest role for Kaji – despite this being billed as her first starring role and her name leading the credits, a tremendous amount of screen time is devoted to other characters, not least the titular blind woman out for revenge, and the yakuza boss scheming against her. Still, while she may have been the draw that got me interested, Blind Woman’s Curse stands as a charmingly strange take on the yakuza genre, an hour and a half of weird, blood-spattered fun. Even if you can see the strings.
Blind Woman’s Curse / 怪談昇り竜
Director: Teruo Ishii
Japanese Release Date: 20th June 1970
Version Watched: 85 min (Arrow Video)