Weird, wild and wonderful | Jasper Sharp on Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse and beyond…
The 1970 Japanese cult classic Blind Woman’s Curse from director Teruo Ishii is getting a UK dual format (Blu-ray/DVD) release from Arrow Video (31 March 2014). But who is this Ishii guy and is the film really worth checking out? Well, when it comes to the weird, wild world of Japanese cult cinema who best to ask than author and expert Jasper Sharp, who also provides the audio commentary on Arrow’s release. This is what Jasper had to say about the film, its director and star and why the Japanese love black cats in their ghost stories…
Why is Blind Woman’s Curse regarded as a Japanese cult classic? It’s such a mad mishmash of genres – yakuza, girl gang, revenge, avant-garde and that peculiarly Japanese mixture of grotesqueness and perversity known as ero guro (erotic grotesque). The company that made it, Nikkatsu, was famous throughout the 1960s for its garish cross-genre hybrids, usually gangster, action, youth dramas and romances – the films of director Seijun Suzuki are the best known example outside of Japan – but this was the first time it tackled horror (unless one counts its one-off attempt at rivalling Toho’s Godzilla franchise, with Gappa: The Triphibian Monster in 1967). Round about this time Nikkatsu was undergoing something of a crisis, and in 1971 turned its production slate completely over to softcore sex films, the legendary Roman Porno genre.
Blind Woman’s Curse feels like an attempt at trying something very different for the studio, at breaking the mould, and it also should be emphasised that Teruo Ishii wasn’t one of the company’s regular directors, he did more work for another studio, Toei, during the 1960s and 1970s. The main appeal of a lot of these Japanese exploitation films from the time though was that they were made within the context of the studio system, so were incredibly well-crafted and made amazing use of colour and scope cinematography, set designs, costumes etc. In a nutshell, there’s a about three films worth of material here in Blind Woman’s Curse, and I’d say the whole exercise is characterised by excess at every level.[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v82lry7HeUI%5D
Teruo Ishii is regarded as the King of Cult, but he’s not really well known outside of Japan. Why is that? A couple of reasons. Firstly, there aren’t many Japanese directors of his generation working in exploitation or genre fields that can really be considered household names outside of Japan. A lot of these studio stalwarts just churned out dozens of films made purely for local audiences, and so fell under the radar of Western critics, and they weren’t making the type of films that the BFI would run as retrospectives, for example. Secondly, related to this, most of Ishii’s work was for Toei, a studio that really didn’t (and to some extent still doesn’t) appear to care much about the international market, which is a shame, because they put out some really wild stuff that still needs ‘discovering’ for Western audiences. He’s not entirely unknown though, as Mark Schilling curated a retro of his films about 10 years ago for Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, and there’s a few of his films on DVD in the States. His best known film is probably Horror of Malformed Men, a kind of psychedelic riff on Island of Dr Moreau that is in the same ballpark as Blind Woman’s Curse.
This was actually out-of-circulation in Japan for a few decades, until quite recently, transgressing even the fairly lax Japanese notions of good taste. Ironically, I’ve known about this film for decades, even before becoming specifically interested in Japanese film, as there’s a picture from it in Dennis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, which a cousin gave to me as a birthday present back when I was about 10, and which was the book that started my whole obsession with film. Anyway, Horror of Malformed Men is definitely well worth checking out. He’s also known for Shogun’s Joys of Torture from the late 1960s, an omnibus film of various stories from the Edo Period full of sex and torture scenes, in a similar vein to Witchfinder General but a bit more explicit. There are so many films he made, and not all in this real extreme cult style. I think the best I’ve seen has to be the first in the Abishiri Prison series (1965-67), featuring rival yakuza mobsters stuck in a prison in the frozen north of Japan, and their various scrapes and escape attempts – great stuff, and well worth hunting down!
Meiko Kaji is also a bit of a legend, especially with Tarantino, who used her singing for Lady Snowblood in his film Kill Bill. But what makes her the Pam Grier of Japanese exploitation films? She had actually been one of Nikkatsu’s lesser stars in the late-1960s, mainly playing in supporting roles under the name of Masako Ota, and then it was around 1969 that she had a makeover and was renamed Meiko Kaji. It was the five-film Stray Cat Rock series (1970-1971) that made her – Blind Woman’s Curse came out in the middle of this. Like I said, this was the time Nikkatsu was having a bit of a crisis and trying out new things, and definitely toughening up their act, so Kaji became sort of iconic as an emblem of that new ‘we won’t take things lying down’ style of feminist defiance. Obviously she was very beautiful, but not in the typically cute or submissive mode of most Japanese actresses. And her acting style was very restrained, to the extent that by the time of the Female Convict Scorpion series, she was virtually silent throughout her films, yet an immensely commanding presence. She was already pretty well-known in the West, at least among Asian film fans, before Kill Bill. Lady Snowblood and the first Female Convict Scorpion film were among the first Japanese films to come out on DVD in the States, and I think they were already out on VHS long before then. That’s how Tarantino would have known about her and modelled Lucy Liu’s character on her for Kill Bill.
My favourite character in Blind Woman’s Curse is the psychopathic hunchback, who looks like Charles Manson in kabuki drag. Was the actor playing him as crazy as he looks? Tatsumi Hijikata‘s probably the most famous performer in the whole film! He created the avant-garde Butoh dance movement in the postwar period along with another guy, Kazuo Ohno. The idea was to break with the formal traditions of contemporary dance and to come up with something that really represented the fragility of human existence in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, expressing death, disability and decay through movement. Butoh is still really popular as a dance movement to this day, and you can see elements of its style in the contorted, spasmodic jerking and deathly expressions of the ghosts in contemporary horror films like Ringu. Hijikata wasn’t a film actor, but obviously his fairly distinctive demeanour did see him cast in a few films – most notably in Teruo Ishii’s Horror of Malformed Men where he has an even more commanding role than in Blind Woman’s Curse.[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxZ6oZWO9pQ%5D
Ghostly black cats are really popular on Japanese cinema. Why is that? They can be found in horror literature and cinema across the world, but there were a couple of very influential Kabuki dramas from the 18th century, based on legend I guess, which formed the basis of a lot of early Japanese supernatural films – Legend of the Ghost Cat of Arima, The Cat of Okazaki and Ghost Cat of Saga. These are sort of dramatic staples that got remade and reworked over and over again, almost from the beginning of Japanese film and right up until the 1960s. It’s difficult to know to what extent we might call the earlier ones ‘horror films’, as so few survive from the prewar period. The best known outside of Japan is probably Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968), which is a bit different because it is more highly stylized than most, and uses the plot setup to make various political points.[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZbN5RWgL-k%5D
Arrow’s Blind Woman’s Curse release also includes four trailers for the Stray Cat Rock series, and also feature Meiko Kaji. Are these also worth checking out? They’re wild and sexy action films, and can be enjoyed purely and simply as this. They’re also worth checking out for some of Meiko Kaji’s most iconic early roles. But for me, the racial element is really fascinating – the films all take place in the lawless interzone just in the black-market and pleasure quarters area outside of the US military bases near Yokohama, so there’s this real tension between concepts of traditional Japan and the alluring yet dangerous outside forces, and this also manifests itself in the rock music soundtracks and mainly mixed-race cast members. It paints a really interesting portrait of culturally where Japan was at during this time, partially embracing Western fashions and music, but also trying to negotiate these foreign elements within its own strong culture, and the result in these films, I think, is pure dynamite.
• Jasper Sharp is the author of Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema (FAB Press) and The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema (Scarecrow Press), as well as co-author, with Tom Mes, of The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (Stone Bridge Press), with whom he edits the website, Midnight Eye – Visions of Japanese Cinema. Based in London in the UK, Jasper’s currently working with director Tim Grabham on The Creeping Garden – A Real-Life Science-Fiction Story about Slime Moulds and the People Who Work With Them.
Posted on March 26, 2014, in Classic World Cinema, Cult classic, Horror, Must See, Must See, Must-See, World Cinema and tagged Blind Woman's Curse, Butoh, Cult Japanese Cinema, erotic grotesque, Horror of Malformed Men, Jasper Sharp, Meiko Kaji, Midnight Eye - Visions of Japanese Cinema, Must See, Nikkatsu, Stray Cat Rock, Tatsumi Hijikata, Teruo Ishii, The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.