AKA: Black Cat’s Revenge
Director: Teruo Ishii
Writer: Teruo Ishii, Yoshitada Sone
Producer: Hideo Koi
Cast: Meiko Kaji, Hoki Tokuda, Makoto Sato, Hideo Sunazuka, Shiro Otsuji, Toru Abe, Tatsumi Hijikata
Running Time: 85 min.
By Kyle Warner
Teruo Ishii was an incredibly prolific filmmaker, directing nearly fifty movies in the 1960s alone. Referred to in Japan as “the King of Cult”, Ishii dabbled in many genres: he made exploitation films such as the Joys of Torture series, a large collection of gangster pics like Female Yakuza Tale, and also some horror films like the controversial Horrors of Malformed Men (which I believe is still banned in its native Japan). His 1970 film Blind Woman’s Curse could almost be described as a sampler platter of the themes and styles he worked with throughout his career. Blind Woman’s Curse is a very strange film – part yakuza revenge tale and part grotesque horror show – but it’s a whole lot of fun to watch.
In the stylish, slow-motion opening sequence, female yakuza Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji) and her gang raid a rival’s stronghold. As she’s striking down the rival’s boss, her sword accidentally swipes across the eyes of the old man’s female underling. The woman goes down screaming and out of nowhere a black cat appears to lap up the blood that gushes from her eyes. Tachibana goes to prison for her crimes, but the prison bars are the least of her worries – she believes she has been cursed by the cat: “A black cat that loved the taste of blood.” Three years later and Tachibana’s out of prison. She reforms her gang, now mainly operated by women she met in prison, all of whom are decked out with the same dragon tattoo. Tachibana’s problems multiply as a new rival wants her turf… and her past comes back to haunt her.
The story really gets interesting when a blind swordswoman enters the picture. The blind woman resides in a grotesque theatre-based freak show, and is aided by a crazy hunchback and an evil black cat. From her theatre, the vengeful swordswoman plots against Tachibana, and the hunchback picks off members of the Tachibana crew one by one, cutting the dragon tattoos from their backs as trophies.
It’s an interesting mix of genres and for the most part it succeeds in throwing competing styles into the same story. However, some scenes stand out so much that they seem to belong to an entirely different movie. There’s just so much going on in Blind Woman’s Curse – so many unique visuals and crazy ideas – that perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when some of it doesn’t make that much sense. What’s frustrating, though, is that the film doesn’t allow all of its various themes and plot points to reach a satisfying conclusion. Is something truly supernatural going on or is it just made to seem that way? Did all of our heroes survive the final battle? You’re not likely to notice this until after the film is finished – during the film you’re gonna be having too much fun with the nonsense on screen – but in the hours or days after holes in the film may seem to develop. I really enjoyed the film, but the execution can be a bit messy.
At the center of it all is Meiko Kaji. The film came out as she was beginning her steady rise to fame and Kaji puts forth a strong performance as the center of the film’s ensemble. It’s actually a warmer character than most US fans would expect from her, but you can see the traits that would later find their way into more well-known roles such as Lady Snowblood, Female Convict: Scorpion, and Wandering Ginza Butterfly in the years to come. In the 1970s Meiko Kaji would become one of the most popular and highest paid Japanese actresses, so it’s interesting to watch Blind Woman’s Curse and see some of that star power as it first started to present itself.
There are also some fine comedic performances from Hideo Sunazuka (Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster) and Ryohei Uchida (Shadow Hunters). Uchida’s character is a real oddball – he plays a foul-smelling gangster that goes around in a bowler hat, jacket, and red loincloth. I think Uchida’s exposed backside receives more close-ups than his face does. It’s stupid, cheap comedy, but somehow it feels right at home in a movie like this.
Blind Woman’s Curse can also be seen as a film that helps represent the ending of an era. The film industry in Japan had been incredibly successful in the 50s and early 60s, but by the end of the 60s ticket sales were steadily declining. Much of this was thanks to the rise in TV productions in Japan –why go to see a movie when you can stay at home and see some of the same stories on TV for free? Major studios like Daiei were folding while other studios were forced to make fewer movies on smaller budgets. Nikkatsu, the studio behind Blind Woman’s Curse, went in a different direction. Starting the year after Blind Woman’s Curse, Nikkatsu changed its entire production model and moved towards almost exclusively filming Roman-Pornos (or pink films). Much of the talent that had been groomed at Nikkatsu – including Meiko Kaji – wanted no part in this change and quickly jumped ship, joining other studios instead. In recent years Nikkatsu has gotten back to producing films for general audiences again and has a hand in such films as Yakuza Apocalypse, Tokyo Tribe, and Killers.
Blind Woman’s Curse arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Arrow Video. Film buffs in the US should definitely be excited that Arrow has chosen to cross the pond and release Blu-rays stateside. Similar to Shout! Factory and Criterion, Arrow uncovers gems from years past and gives them the care they deserve, with great picture and interesting extras. Blind Woman’s Curse is now 45 years old and it looks absolutely excellent on Blu-ray. For extras we get a commentary from Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp, a trailer for Blind Woman’s Curse, four trailers for the Stray Cat Rock series which Meiko Kaji starred in, and a booklet with an essay on the film from Midnight Eye’s Tom Mes. Jasper Sharp’s commentary is very informative, lending lots of information about Ishii, Kaji, and the state of Nikkatsu at the time of the production. I enjoyed listening to it. Sharp also mentions that the film was once known to some foreign audiences under the title of The Haunted Life of a Dragon-Tattooed Lass — which is such an awesome title that I’m shocked they changed it.
Blind Woman’s Curse is often strange and sometimes nasty, but Ishii’s colorful style is infectious, giving the viewer plenty of shocks and laughs along the way. The film’s many bizarre ideas don’t always connect to make a cohesive whole, but it’s a fun film experience and one you won’t soon forget.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 7/10