Kaidan nobori ryû, 1970
At the end of the sixties, during which time Daiei and Nikkatsu studios were facing somewhat financial difficulties, thanks to poor box office attendance, Teruo Ishii was enjoying freelance reign after a string of hits with Toei. As Nikkatsu moved ever-closer to focusing primarily on Roman Porno flicks, they sought Ishii’s services in the hopes that he’d direct their ‘Rising Dragon’ series, which belonged to the female yakuza sub-genre. Unpreventable commitments elsewhere meant that Ishii could only devote time to two of the three features, the first two of which starred Hiroko Ogi: he would direct The Rising Dragon’s Iron Flesh (Nobori ryu Tekkahada, 1969), while assistant director to Seijun Suzuki, Masami Kuzuo, helmed its follow-up The Rising Dragon’s Skin Exposed (Nobori ryu yawa hada Kaicho). By the time that Rising Dragon Ghost Story (or Blind Woman’s Curse as it’s become synonymously known in the west) came around, Ogi had moved on to another venture. Nikkatsu and Daiei were beginning to form new strategies, in a bid to secure the box office once again, which happened to involve pooling their resources in looking for promising new acting talent. Enter Meiko Kaji, whose distinctive looks and physicality earned her her first major film role. Teruo Ishii, armed with Miss Kaji, a script co-written by soon-to-be Roman Porno extraordinaire Chusei Sone and the eager blessing of their studio, thus developed what was to be one of the most unusual melding of genres ever seen: a ghostly macabre yakuza tale, which has since gone on to become a cult classic.
The film follows Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji), who is second in line to take over the Tachibana clan. One rainy night, Akemi and her men are involved in a fierce battle with a rival gang, during which time a young woman intervenes, but whose face meets the tip of Akemi’s blade. As the woman lies on the ground in agony a black cat proceeds to lick her wounded eyes, signifying the beginning of a karmic haunting for young Akemi. Soon after the street brawl Akemi is sentenced to three years in prison and upon finishing her term she re-enters the world with a new philosophy on life. Joining up with her clan she learns that it too has re-evaluated its standing, with its elder Ojiki even wanted to disband it and live out the rest of his years running a small restaurant.
With the Tachibana clan now in a much humbled state a gang boss by the name of Dobashi (Toru Abe) seeks to exploit their weaknesses. It turns out that he has a mole placed in the Tachibana clan, whose job it is to make sure that the Tachibana’s go to war with another rival gang, led by Aozora (Ryuhei Uchida). Once these two go head to head Dobashi can clean up the pieces and rule the town for himself. But Akemi no longer wishes to fight, and hopes that she can mediate in a more effective manner, making Dobashi’s plan all the more desperate. When a travelling circus comes into town things soon turn upside down with the arrival of a mysterious blind woman and the deaths of Akemi’s loyal friends. A series of spooky encounters draws Akemi ever closer to facing her fears and dealing with past sins in Teruo Ishii’s bizarre tale of revenge and redemption.
Blind Woman’s Curse initially bares all the hallmarks of a fairly formulaic ninkyo yakuza tale, with director Ishii moving as usual at a quick pace, establishing our characters swiftly and then formulating a plot filled with false loyalties and seedy orchestrators. Indeed, most of the first half of the film is an assured splicing of quirky humour and melodrama, with glorified battles of honour, as well as exchanges of disparaging dialogue between rival clans, who seek to usurp one another. As the film passes the thirty minute mark, however, it becomes something else entirely; quite literally Teruo Ishii turns it into a freakish house of horrors, whereby a crazy athletic hunchback (played by Tatsumi Hijikata, who one year prior starred in Ishii’s Horror of the Malformed Men) leads the film into a far more decadent territory of sex and murderous intrigue. Ishii ushers in a series of incredibly cheesy, though fun special effects, which, along with his stylised compositions, allows proceedings to take on the surreal form that he was always so fondly remembered for. Seeking to weave a thread of uncertain horror, peppered with light scares, the film’s symbolic notion of inevitable retribution wrapped in a little Bakeneko superstition carries it through a deliberately paced and foreboding middle act, as it builds toward its inevitable crescendo: a strikingly staged showdown within a desolate town between Akemi and the eponymous woman of the title.
Despite the sheer predictability of the central storyline, in which the heavily signposted arrival of the title’s mystery blind woman (Hoki Tokuda) signals a strong tie with Akemi – and Ishii’s futile efforts to try and conceal the big twist for as long as possible – Blind Woman’s Curse is elevated further thanks to its commendably strong cast. Kaji, making her debut appearance is quite impressive. Granted she’s no show-stopper, but as a precursor to the kinds of laid back and quieter characters she’d take on at Toei in the early seventies, her presence is a curious one for completeists alone. There are, however, lengthy durations in which Miss Kaji is absent, making way for a host of wonderfully colourful and over-the-top tertiary support, who happily prance around the intimate and surreally-lit environment of quaint houses and opium dens, complete with their obligatory fill of naked ladies and more-than-corrupt gang bosses. When paired with Ishii’s trademark bouts of fitting humour as well, it’s enough to ensure that Blind Woman’s Curse remains as ridiculously fun as it is totally absurd, right through to its very end.