Playful and colourful, the 1970 pinky violence series Stray Cat Rock stars the great Meiko Kaji as the leader of a badass girl gang. All five films in the series have been released in a beautiful collection by Arrow Video.
Initially conceived as the third entry in Nikkatsu’s Rising Dragon series of films, Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (Kaidan nobori ryû, aka The Tattooed Swordswoman, 1970) ended up being a very different beast from its predecessors. What was to be a relatively straightforward and somewhat sexed-up ninkyo (yakuza chivalry) flick quickly turned into a kaidan eiga hybrid featuring a bakeneko (a supernatural cat), a change instigated at the behest of studio execs whilst filming was in progress. Not content to merely acquiesce, Ishii took things even further by including elements of ero-guro, the erotic grotesque, a pre-war art and literary movement focusing on sexual and corporeal corruption, destruction and decadence. As censorship continued to relax throughout the 1960s and 70s, ero-guro enjoyed something of a renaissance on the silver screen, as studios were needing new, sensationalist ways to keep people in theatres. This on the fly inclusion of seemingly unrelated elements, coupled with Ishii’s predilection towards an eccentric, iconoclastic filmmaking style, has meant that Blind Woman’s Curse has garnered a reputation for being the most nonsensical and outlandish offering by the Japanese ‘King of Cult’.
In her first major leading role, Meiko Kaji plays Akemi Tachibana, leader of the Tachibana gang. During an opening credits fight scene with an enemy gang, she zones in on the rival boss with sword unsheathed but, in the throes of combat, accidentally slashes the eyes of her target’s young sister (Hoki Tokuda), rendering the poor girl blind. Spending the next three years in prison, Akemi returns to the fold in time to take on a new threat, the Dobashi clan, who are intent on advancing on Tachibana turf. A third gang, led by the peculiar Aozora (Ryôhei Uchida) – wearing a curious combination of bowler hat, yellow waistcoat and red fundoshi (loincloth) – is introduced to further complicate the gangland politics of the story.
But in the background of all this, Akio, the blind girl from the opening scene, has also returned and is seeking revenge. She picks off members of Akemi’s retinue, flaying the dragon tattoos that distinguish the gang off their backs, with the aid of two unlikely accomplices: Ushimatsu (played by Butoh dance founder Tatsumi Hijikata), a hunchback companion from the travelling circus where she performs a knife-throwing act; and a black cat, which mysteriously appeared the day she lost her eyesight, keenly lapping up the blood from her wound. Ishii blends this all together into a volatile cocktail that is in part violent, spooky, irrational, intentionally humorous, unintentionally humorous, and borderline hallucinogenic.
Although the film makes more sense than it is often given credit for (but not by much), Blind Woman’s Curse is indeed a wildly uneven work, one that ebbs and flows depending on which mode it’s in, but therein lies a certain appeal. Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the film lie in its ero-guro midsection. The circus entrance is adorned with semi-naked dancers and an old man cooking up a wok of wax limbs, and a performance inside involves simulated coitus between a young woman and a dog wrapped in a Japanese military flag. Delving further into the oneiric is a feverish butoh sequence performed by Hijikata, which plays more like an intermission segment than as a scene of any narrative purpose. But it’s when the film turns toward the grotesque and dreamlike that Ishii appears to be most at home. He had just that previous year helmed the delirious Edogawa Rampo mishmash Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), also featuring Hijikata, which possibly makes for a more appropriate companion piece to Blind Woman’s Curse than either of the other Rising Dragon films.
Ishii compensates for the film’s lack of coherence by conjuring a hodgepodge of gaudy yet stimulating visuals. The Fujicolor process lends a garish, funhouse quality to the cinematography, which is further embellished by some of the film’s production design. The Dobashi headquarters is fashioned from perspective-confounding mirrors, cages, trap doors, hidden rooms and torture chambers. The Tachibana, by contrast, operate from a more traditional abode, but this and the nearby market square, which forms part of their territory, offer plenty of design flourishes to feast upon. Ishii is also enterprising when it comes to camera technique. The rain-swept opening credits scene utilises slow motion to emphasise the tumbling of bodies and spurts of blood from blades (presumably) too quick for regular motion to do justice to them. Conversely, other parts of the same sequence are freeze-framed, presenting tableaux of death-in-progress that gleefully mingle the hanging blood sprays with the red kanji that lists the culprits behind this work of madness.
Even though she is regularly sidelined to facilitate the film’s many strands, it was Kaji who perhaps saw the greatest dividend from her involvement (both as lead actress and singer of the film’s theme song), as she would quickly become the queen of this kind of exploitation-soaked cinema throughout the 1970s. Her iconic, murderous glare, would go on to emblemise cult hits such as the Female Prisoner series (1972-73) and, most famously, Lady Snowblood (1973) and its 1974 sequel. For Kaji and/or Ishii fans, or for admirers of this particularly sensationalist period of Japanese cinema, Blind Woman’s Curse will likely sate your thirst. Just prepare to be puzzled whilst you imbibe.
Lady Snowblood started her life as the heroine of a manga written by Kazuo Koike in the early 70s, before being incarnated by the actress Meiko Kaji in two film adaptations of the story, Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld (1973) and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), both directed by Toshiya Fujita. Strong from her turns as the leader of a delinquent girl gang in the Stray Cat Rock series (1970-71), and as a cold-blooded avenger in the Female Convict Scorpion films (1972-73), the enigmatic, steely-eyed Kaji was the perfect choice to play a 19th-century assassin out to avenge the rape of her mother and the murder of her family.
Blizzard from the Netherworld opens in Tokyo Prison in Meiji 7 (1874). A woman gives birth as snow falls outside, announcing to her newborn daughter, barely out of the womb: ‘Yuki, you were born for vengeance, a child of the netherworld.’ The film cuts to the now adult Yuki dispatching a local criminal in an eerily quiet, snowy street. As she squares up to the gangster’s henchmen, snow falls from a nearby roof, landing inches from their feet, an act of aggression that suggests that Yuki is almost supernaturally in control. As we are repeatedly told throughout the film, Yuki is not quite human; her name means ‘snow’ in Japanese, and she is an elemental force, unstoppable and indestructible. Conjured up from hell to carry out her mother’s revenge, she is the embodiment of an idée fixe.
Her full name, ‘Shurayuki-hime’, is a pun on the Japanese for Snow White, ‘Shirayuki-hime’. The Kanji character ‘Shura’ means ‘the netherworld’, a place of carnage, and ‘hime’ is ‘princess’. In the Grimm fairy tale, Snow White is also conjured up by her mother out of blood and snow: the queen, having pricked her finger and seen the drop of blood on the snow, wishes for a daughter that would have ‘skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony’. Just like Lady Snowblood, Snow White is plucked from her mother’s fancy, and fashioned out of the elements that the queen can see around her. This quasi-magical birth conveys all the mystery of procreation, and the combination of blood and snow clearly has sexual undertones, with the hot red flow fertilising white water; a mixing of fluids, but also of states, liquid and solid, life and death, to create a new being. No wonder that the combination of blood and snow, so over-used, still remains powerful: it is the image of primordial creation.
Or destruction, in the case of Yuki. As she walks away from the first scene of carnage, the narrator explains: ‘People say that what cleanses this world of decay is not pure white snow but snow that is stained fiery red: the snow of the netherworld.’ It is a striking inversion of the symbolism of snow, and the image is brilliantly paradoxical. True to her name, Yuki is a contradictory being: a demonic creature hell-bent on destruction, but pure in her single-minded purpose of revenge.
Visually, the film makes much of the white/red contrast, starting with the female convicts in their red prison uniforms surrounding the newborn Yuki, wrapped in a white cloth. Yuki wears a white kimono for most of the film, the perfect backdrop for the Grand Guignol sprays of blood that regularly gush out of her victims. White clothes are in fact the starting point of the whole story: the husband of Yuki’s mother was killed because he was wearing white, and for that reason was mistakenly taken for a hated government official.
Naturally, the film ends with more blood and snow. Having accomplished the final act of her revenge, Yuki staggers out in the snow, wounded, her white kimono stained with blood. Clearly the welding of these elements - snow, blood, women and revenge - exerts a strange attraction, with that final scene in particular sowing seeds in the imagination of other filmmakers. Norifumi Suzuki’s Sex and Fury, released in 1973, was seemingly influenced by Blizzard from the Netherworld, although it upped the quotient of nudity, violence and sheer lunacy. Suzuki’s film similarly ends with the heroine stumbling out in the snow, her bare tattooed chest covered in blood, which she cleans with a handful of snow before walking away in the darkness as the snowflakes turn into hanafuda gambling cards. No such inventive re-interpretation in Tarantino’s Kill Bill 1 (2003), which simply regurgitated its cinematic precedents like a lesson well learnt. Park Chan-wook, on the other hand, ended his Lady Vengeance (2005) with the heroine being given tofu by her daughter; as they embrace in the snow, the white substances inside and around her offer the promise of cleansing and renewal. The snow holds no such promise at the end of Blizzard from the Netherworld, unique in its complex reading of snow; herself the purifier, Yuki is beyond cleansing and can only carry on down her path of revenge, even as all her enemies lie dead.