The Film: 4/5
The Tachibana Yakuza gang, ruled by their deceased leader's daughter Akemi (Meiko Kaji), keep the peace in a small province of Japan, but rivals like the gang headed by Boss Aozora (Ryôhei Uchida) pose constant threats to their power. One of Akemi's gang, Tatsu Semba (Shirô Ôtsuji), is in league with the leader of the Dobashi clan (Tôru Abe) to incite a way between the Tachibana and Aozora gangs that will ultimately destroy both, leaving the territory under Dobashi's complete control. Another problem arises for Akemi in the person of a mysterious blind woman (Hoki Tokuda) who has vowed vengeance against her and the rest of the Tachibana gang and used her impressive skill with a blade to form an alliance with Dobashi. Members of Akemi's gang begin to suffer violent deaths, while female members are found murdered with their dragon tattoos flayed from their backs. Akemi's back tattoo is the head of the dragon, and the blind woman is determined to take the head before her mission is complete. Fighting alongside Akemi is Tani (Makoto Satô), a handsome stranger who is also pretty crafty in a fight.
If Toshiro Mifune is the most iconic actor in Japanese cinema, then Meiko Kaji has to be his female equivalent. Maybe that's because whenever I think of beautiful, badass Japanese women, Meiko is my default standard. Whether it was in Lady Snowblood and its sequel or in any installment of the Female Convict Scorpion and Stray Cat Rock series, she projected stoicism and vulnerability with equal conviction and brought astounding presence to her every scene. When Meiko isn't on camera, things just aren't as interesting. That's the mark of a true movie star, and Kaji's singing voice was just as hauntingly gorgeous as she was.
Blind Woman's Curse, which teamed her with Japan's filmmaking "King of Cult" Teruo Ishii (Horrors of Malformed Men), functions as both a rip-roaring vehicle for Kaji's captivating talents and a potent genre cocktail that combines the best parts of violent Yakuza thrillers and Asian supernatural horror. It's not the most original feature ever made, but what it is happens to be an entertaining little effort that knows what it's good at and does it well and with professionalism. Ishii had plenty of experience making Yakuza flicks, but he also spread his wings quite a bit to direct superhero shows for kids and a few "pink films" for the grown-ups. His ability to play in multiple genre sandboxes with smarts and ease is reflected in Blind Woman's Curse shifting from sword-slashing gangster story to bizarre supernatural revenge opus without a care in the world. All we the viewing audience can do is strap in for the ride.
Ishii, who co-wrote the script with Chûsei Sone (credited as "Yoshitada Sone"), paints the story and characters of Blind Woman's Curse with the broadest of strokes, leaving no room for subtlety or depth. Every person in the movie falls into a certain established archetype and the story arcs are predictably set up and resolved, but much like the American westerns of the 40's and 50's we come to a movie like Curse with a set of expectations. All it has to do to be considered a success is to meet most of or all of those expectations. We want the good to be triumphant and the evil to be punished, but we also accept that innocent people will perish along the way and everything that transpires in the story will affect the survivors forever. Blood will run and limbs will be chopped, while Meiko Kaji will rarely have a hair out of place.
The supernatural angle is what makes Curse stand out from other Yakuza features, and Ishii takes his time introducing it into the narrative. The first two acts stick to the template of the warring gangs story with no deviation. I won't say how and when Ishii decides to take Curse into the realm of the surreal, but by then it feels like an organic transition and not a shocking turn of events designed to jolt the viewers. The cinematography by Shigeru Kitaizumi captures the garish colors of Curse's world and heightens them to disorienting degrees, from the fountains of blood released by every blade wound to the creepy sideshow attractions at a local theater where the sightless assassin of the title and her hunchbacked helper work while plotting their revenge on the Tachibana gang.
Kaji rules this movie just as her character Akemi does for her gang, and the intense physicality she brings the fight scenes remains astounding after nearly five decades. Ishii gives her several set-pieces in which to shine, the opening slow-motion sword battle in a torrential storm being one of the highlights. He also allows Kitaizumi's camera to be positioned at some interesting angles to allow for some scenes to achieve increased tension and surprise, like when Satô's character enters an opium den while the camera quietly remains below the floor. Satô's performance is another winner, making Tani the rare man in this world who is pure of heart and sides with Akemi's gang because he senses it's the right thing to do. Shirô Ôtsuji and Tôru Abe make excellent hateful villains you want to see suffer slowly and painfully for their actions.
It's the performance by Hoki Tokuda that is good enough to give Kaji a run for her money as she invites comparisons to both Zatoichi and the Marvel Comics superhero Daredevil in the speedy, efficient manner in which she dispatches her adversaries. Tokuda also portrays the character's inner torment with convincing emotion, and by the final scene we sense that the blind woman has undertaken a poignant journey with a destination no one could really see coming. That's the greatest twist in Blind Woman's Curse; it's characters aren't slaves to the material, they are its masters.
Blind Woman's Curse was digitally transferred in 1080p high-definition from original pre-print material by Nikkatsu Studios and delivered on a restored master tape to Arrow Video for their Blu-ray release. The results are far from mind-blowing, but I would wager that this is the best that this film has ever looked on home video, and this MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer is possibly the finest it will ever look. There is a considerable amount of print damage - scratches, "cigarette burns", and the occasional blur - left untouched by Nikkatsu's restoration team, and the brightness level is rarely consistent. But the amount of grain is healthy and helps to maintain the fine filmic texture. Plus the details have been sharpened and the colors are dazzling. The film is presented in the 2.44:1 widescreen aspect ratio for this release, and though it was exhibited theatrically at 2.35:1 the framing doesn't appear to have made much of a difference. The clashing swords, high-pitched dialogue, and Hajime Kaburagi's (Tokyo Drifter) busy soundtrack all come through with distortion-free clarity in the Japanese LPCM 2.0 mono audio track. No complaints there. English subtitles have also been provided.
The main extra on this disc is a new commentary with Jasper Sharp, an expert on Japanese cinema. His discussion (which rarely has a moment of silence) delves into the production of Blind Woman's Curse, how it impacted Nikkatsu's output, the careers of Meiko Kaji and director Teruo Ishii, and much more. It's a solid track full of relevant information and critical perspective. The disc-based supplements close out with a trailer for Blind Woman's Curse (3 minutes) in Japanese with no English subtitles and trailers for four of the films in the Stray Cat Rock series (approximately 12 minutes total): Wild Jumbo, Sex Hunter, Machine Animal, and Beat '71. Arrow has the latter prepped for a box set release later this summer. This release also comes with a DVD copy featuring a standard-definition transfer of the film and the accompanying extras, a reversible cover with the original poster art and a newly commissioned image by Gilles Vranckx, and a collector's booklet featuring a new essay about Blind Woman's Curse written by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes and information about the transfer.
Blind Woman's Curse is great fun that occasionally exceeds the expectations it otherwise meets. Arrow Video's high-definition Blu-ray release represents possibly the best this oddball standout in Japanese action cinema will ever look on home video, and the film has a good audio commentary track to accompany its visual splendor and left field story twists. But no amount of bonus features could surpass the timeless visual of the lovely Meiko Kaji wielding a mighty steel blade while the blood of her opponents stains her white dress.