Saturday, February 11, 2017

Meiko Kaji at Japan Society: Blind Woman’s Curse

When it comes to hacking and slashing, Japan has long been a progressive nation. They brought us Zatoichi the blind swordsman and followed up with this sightless vengeance-seeker. Her sad fate is all the fault of Akemi Tachibana, played by Meiko Kaji. However, Tachibana is not just a fierce killer. She is also the leader of the most virtuous of the rival yakuza clans. Regardless, the bodies pile up quickly in Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (trailer here), which screens as part of the Japan Society’s weekend retrospective, Cruel Beauty: A Romantic Weekend with Meiko Kaji.

Ostensibly, Curse was part of Rising Dragon historical yakuza franchise, but you would be hard-pressed to explain how it was related to previous films, aside from a handful of thematic commonalities, even if you were intimately familiar with the series. Frankly, that is probably for the best. As the film opens, Tachibana is about to slice through a rival clan, who presumably had it coming, but she inadvertently blinds Aiko Gouda while the young girl was trying to protect her thuggish brother. We then flashforward a few years to see Tachibana released from prison and Gouda working as a blind knife-thrower in a traveling sideshow.

The dastardly Dobashi clan leader has been trying to instigate a war between the Tachibanas and the Aozoras, but thus far neither has been willing to bite. However, the tide turns in his favor when the mysterious swordswoman offers her services. Soon, she is hunting down Tachibana’s clan sisters and carving off their dragon tattoos. The bloody carnage rather delights the spectral black cat who accompanies her, as well as Ushimatsu, the sideshow’s hunchback.

Curse is a wonderfully weird cocktail of genre elements, including hints of the supernatural and plenty of macabre stylings, but swordplay is always the first order of business. Some touches are downright bizarre, such as Aozora, who looks like he could feel at home in A Clock Work Orange (which would release the following year), given his foppish western silk shirts and distressing butt-cheek revealing loincloth.

Kaji is terrific as Tachibana, projecting as the resolute conviction and mother hen protectiveness you would want from your yakuza leader. However, jazz singer and wife of Henry Miller Hoki Tokuda makes an even deeper impression as the eerily unsettling Gouda. Makoto Sato adds plenty of zest and energy as Tani, a stout-hearted freelancer who often throws in his chips with the Tachibana Clan. Yet, even if you try, you can’t unsee Ryôhei Uchida’s Aozora and the loincloth stuffed up his backside.

So yes, Blind Woman’s Curse pretty much has it all. Kaji wields a sword with authority and Ishii keeps the mayhem coming fast and furious, building up to some Grand Guignol-worthy set pieces. That all makes it perfect for Valentine’s viewing. Highly recommended, Blind Woman’s Curse screens this Sunday (2/12) at the Japan Society, as part of their Meiko Kaji celebration.