Thursday, April 25, 2019

On the Big Screen: BLIND WOMAN'S CURSE (1970)

Teruo Ishii might be called the Tod Browning of Japanese cinema. He shared with his American precursor an interest in crime and an instinct for the grotesque. These converge in Blind Woman's Curse, an early starring role for 70s death-goddess Meiko Kaji that I got to see at the Proctor's GE Theater thanks to the It Came From Schenectady cult film society. If some of the film's virtually supernatural elements seem incongruous in a yakuza film, bear in mind that its setting is implicitly a fantasy film, one in which a yakuza boss can be described as pure in heart. That boss is our star, playing Akemi Tachibana, who inherited the mantle and the unquestioned loyalty of her henchmen from her father. She's a fighting boss, as demonstrated in a formal showdown with another gang during the opening credits, and almost unconsciously charismatic, as demonstrated when, serving time for her role in the fight, she converts some skeptical fellow convicts in a women's prison into future soldiers. Her clan controls a public market but is regularly challenged by her clownish rivals, the Aozora clan. These challenges aren't to be taken too seriously, since the primary attribute of the Aozora boss (Ryohei Uchida) is the long-unwashed loincloth that adorns his prominently displayed buttocks. But when a retaliatory raid on his gang goes terribly wrong, Akemi comes under increasing pressure to escalate the feud.

As we quickly learn, events are being manipulated by a third gang, led by the ambitious Dobashi (Toru Abe) and abetted by a traitor in Akemi's midst. The provocations grow more extreme as Akemi's followers are stripped of the dragon tattoos that adorn their backs and a dubious feline is seen licking at the flayed remnants. There are, in fact, still more players in the game. One is a soft-spoken swordswoman (Hoki Tokuda -- at the time Mrs. Henry Miller!) who happens to be blind. She happens to have been blinded by Akemi in that opening-credits fight, during which her brother was killed. She actually looks really good for someone who apparently had her eyes slashed, and of course, this being Japan, her handicap confers a compensatory advantage in fighting skill. A cat licking her wounds immediately after the injury probably helped as well. Anyway, you get the idea; she's out for vengeance against Akemi. Meiko Kaji is the object of vengeance for once, that is, but this was still early in her career before she was set in her ways.

What the story is with the blind woman's sidekick, who can say? Ushimatsu is hunchbacked performance artist, played by Tatsumi Hijikata, credited as a creator of the modern dance form of butoh.  We're treated to one of his strange performances, enhanced (if that's the word) by Ishii's (and Osamu Inoue's) frantic editing. We're also treated (if that's the word) to his hobby, which is maintaining a carny house of horrors featuring fake (???) severed heads, limbs, etc. Ushimatsu appears to go above and beyond whatever mandate the blind swordswoman or Dobashi gave him, and his exploits are pretty much the essence of this picture. At one point, after the more conventional thugs have bumped off Akemi's wise old uncle, the rare yakuza who has gone straight, the hunchback shows up to lick and fondle the corpse. Later, the apparently living corpse shows up to spook some people, but when the head promptly rolls off we see that Ushimatsu is just having fun with his new meat puppet. As far as movie hunchbacks go, this guy makes Paul Naschy in Hunchback of the Morgue look like Quasi from the Disney cartoon.

Things can't go on like this forever -- can they? -- so finally Akemi's had all she can stand, til she can't stands no more. Once the traitor in her midst is exposed, she leads the climactic assault on Dobashi's headquarters, except that it's only a warmup for the inevitable showdown between our jingi-licious heroine and the blind swordswoman. Again, in Japan you always bet on the handicapped person in these encounters, even if it's Meiko Kaji on the other side. Only this time, you wouldn't collect, because nobody wins. After the damned cat tries to interfere and gets gutted for its trouble, it looks like Akemi is down for the count. She's waiting for the coup de grace, but it never comes, for the blind swordswoman can tell -- she usually can smell such things -- that our yakuza boss lady is genuinely repentant about killing her brother and the other stuff. She accepts this as an apology, takes her dying cat and goes home. But let's face it: anything after what we've already seen in this picture is going to be an anticlimax, and maybe that's for the best. Otherwise people are bound to leave the theater in a disoriented state dangerous to themselves and others. As it is, the downbeat-yet-upbeat finish gives viewers time to reflect on the fact that, for all its excesses and confusions Blind Woman's Curse is goofy fun, as long as you're in the right -- or fright -- frame of mind.

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