Earlier this week, while browsing Criterion’s website, I found out that Japan Society would be hosting a retrospective dedicated to the filmography of Meiko Kaji (even if you’ve never heard the name, you’re familiar with her work: she’s the one singing the mournful ballad that plays after The Bride scalps Lucy Liu in Kill Bill). Every film on the program sounded tempting, but there was only one I knew absolutely nothing about. And that is how, tonight, I came to experience the gleeful insanity that is Blind Woman’s Curse.
From the opening scene—a rain-soaked battle in which our heroine and her four companions stand shoulder-to-shoulder against dozens of foes, their swords gleaming with every flash of lightning, the colorful tattoos on their backs combining to form the image of a snarling dragon—I knew I was in for a real treat. Like the best entries in the Zatoichi series, Blind Woman’s Curse is a sprawling ensemble piece, with disparate narrative threads somehow interweaving into one cohesive crowd-pleaser. At the center of this spiderweb of subplots sits Meiko Kaji as the boss of the benevolent Tachibana gang, struggling to defend her territory and her late father’s legacy from crooked gamblers, opium pushers, and traitors within her own organization. A chivalrous wandering brawler lends some muscle to her efforts, while her elderly uncle, who gave up his life of crime to manage a modest noodle shop, offers moral guidance. All the while, a blind swordswoman with a mysterious grudge stalks her from the shadows, even as the specter of a demonic black cat haunts her dreams. It all builds up to the inevitable final showdown, followed by a one-on-one duel to settle all accounts.
Blind Woman’s Curse was produced by the Nikkatsu Corporation, best known for its exploitation flicks, and it certainly pulls no punches here when it comes to bloodshed and sexual undertones. However, like the best genre filmmakers, director Teruo Ishii seasons the nudity and gore with moments of (admittedly unsubtle) poetry and lyricism, from the aforementioned tattoo motif to the beautifully painted psychedelic backdrop that sets the stage for the climactic sword fight. This blend of conflicting tones is appropriate, considering the movie’s recurring themes of paradox and misdirection. The old restaurateur, for instance, manages to hold his own against four or five assailants, proving that peace and quiet have done little to soften his edge. And what of the black cat: Is it a genuine supernatural force, or simply the manifestation of the protagonist’s guilty conscience? When an unemployed yakuza refuses payment for services rendered and a sightless woman can earn the respect of the underworld, anything seems possible.
And then there’s Meiko Kaji herself, the greatest contradiction of all. No, not because she’s portraying a female gangster in a man’s world; the only characters to question her leadership are the most vile and detestable of the villains. I’m speaking of her thoroughly captivating performance, as compelling and nuanced as her better-known work in Lady Snowblood: her icy death glare freezes your blood, even as her sincere love for her cohorts and deeply-buried compassion and vulnerability melt your heart—a spirit of great vengeance and furious anger wrapped in a graceful, unapologetically feminine package. I look forward to discovering more of her films—and to attending Japan Society’s next cinematic exhibition.
[Originally written February 12, 2017.]