Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) by Teruo Ishii

Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji), the head of the Tachibana crime family, has to deal with the rival Aozora gang who are threatening to take over their territory. Dobashi (Toru Abe), head of the rival gang, plans to flood the area with opium. He is helped by a traitor Senba-Tatsu (Shiro Otsuji) from the Tachibana group, who is also scheming for control, and a mysterious blind woman (Hoki Tokuda) who is looking for revenge against Akemi. Akemi is helped by a group of women who she met in prison some years before and a man Tani (Makoto Sato), who offers his assistance. Akemi believes that she is cursed, being haunted by dreams of a black cat.

“Blind Woman’s Curse” stars Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood) in a violent crime thriller, touching on the sex industry and drug trafficking. While it is restrained in comparison with director Ishii’s other exploitation films (such as “Shogun’s Joy of Torture” or “Orgies of Edo”) it nevertheless does not shy away from revealing the darker side of human nature. In particular the scenes of opium addiction manage to evoke a sense of absolute moral decay and humanity brought low. The weird and surreal elements also see Ishii at his most creative, with the supernatural, supersitious elements. The hunchback, the blind woman and the cat could almost be from an ancient myth or fable transposed into a historical drama. Ishii is a master of creating unsettling imagery and the inexplicable sights of the circus show, children in baskets, a man making a stew of human body parts, are a great example of achieving genuine chills through bizarre, inexplicable, yet simple visuals. We also see familiar motifs reappearing here, including flashes of torture, tattoos, and bloody sword fights. Ishii excels at strong female characters, and Meiko Kaji gives a fantastic nuanced performance as a dangerous woman who constrains herself in an attempt to tread a new path. Her reluctance to engage with Dobashi creates a tension as the increasing violence forces her to action.

The film features two central plots: the first of a gang war with one reluctant side being pressured to act; the second of the blind woman’s revenge against Akemi. While one is very rooted in the real world, speaking to human violence, competition, criminality, and disloyalty, the other is an archetypical story that seems based in a mystical past, but which mirrors perfectly the contemporary story. This sense of a moral fable is made more explicit in the scenes with the hunchback, a character who seems out of place in the story, a semi-mythical personage imbued with magic powers. It is clearest at the end when we see the sky whorl in an unnatural spiral above the final duel. Ishii draws a line from the violence present in society to these primordial themes of violence and revenge, perhaps suggesting an eternal cycle of cruelty, one that is reflected in humanities earliest stories, represented by the fear of a violent grudge coming back to haunt you. While Akemi wants to move her family out of the criminal world, forces constantly conspire to drag her back into her violent past. A fantastical story that perfectly balances elements of crime and horror to create an entertaining experience led by the exceptional Meiko Kaji.

The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (2021) by Kan Eguchi

Following on directly from the first “Fable” film, we find the legendary hitman (Junichi Okada) living under his secret identity of Akira Sato in Osaka, alongside his associate posing as his sister (Fumino Kimura). He is still working at the design company alongside Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Kainuma (Masao Yoshii). Sato’s past comes back to haunt him in the form of Utsubo (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a former target who is now running a non-profit organization for disadvantaged children as a front for his criminal activities. Four years ago Fable took down five members of his group, but was called off killing Utsubo himsel. Utsubo is out to avenge his brother’s death. Sato is also reunited with a young woman, Hinako (Yurina Hirate) who he saved from the gang, but whose spine was damaged in the rescue.

“The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill” is an enjoyable follow up to the first film, delivering the same mix of action and comedy. The first film had its problems with uneven tone and pacing, neither of which are fixed here. Essentially this sequel succeeds and fails in all the same ways as the previous film. The film recycles several weak gags, such as the Jackal Tomioka and hot food elements of Fable’s character, and again the odd blend of slapstick alongside genuinely gruesome killings and abuse is often hard to reconcile. The opening action sequence is incredible and there are some highly entertaining and inventive action moments, with use of extreme slow-motion to show Fable’s incredible reflexes. The film often seems at a loss when outside of these action moments, struggling to know exactly what to do with the characters, who are largely stereotypical action heroes or villains. The story of Hinako is a welcome addition, adding some much needed emotion and the way the characters backstories are intertwined is interesting. This time there is far more of a connection to Fable’s past and therefore it feels far more meaningful. Yoko is also given more to do in this film, showing her own martial prowess.

Fans of the first film will enjoy this and it delivers some fantastic fight scenes and action. It is hard to see why they wouldn’t simply go for a straight-up action film, retaining some of the better character-led comedy while removing the sillier elements. It’s a missed opportunity as taken individually there are some incredible scenes, but it often feels like two distinct films spliced together, one an ultra-violent and stylish underworld thriller and the other a wacky comedy. Overall, the film is an improvement on the first and certainly has elements to recommend it despite its flaws.

The Fable (2019) by Kan Eguchi

An elite hitman (Junichi Okada) is asked to lie low for a year with strict instructions not to kill anyone in this live-action manga adaptation from Kan Eguchi. Following a mission in which he takes out an entire group of rival gangsters, the man is given the new identity of Akira Sato, and along with his partner (Fumino Kimura), now renamed Yoko Sato, they  are relocated to Osaka. They are told they must lay low for a year and not kill anyone, or do anything to raise suspicions. While under the protection of another mob boss, Ebihara (Ken Yasuda), “Sato” soon finds himself drawn back into the world of gang violence and vendettas when Ebihara violent brother Kojima (Yuya Yagira) is released from prison and begins stirring up trouble. Sato is also targetted by two ganstgers who know him as the urban legend “Fable”, who believe that taking him out will assure their own legendary status. While attempting to remain inconspicuous, Sato begins work at a design agency, falling for his co-worker Misaki Shimizu (Mizuki Yamamoto).

Based on a popular manga series by Katsuhisa Minami, with a screenplay by Watanabe Yusuke, the story of a hitman who is ordered not to kill has a lot of potential, but unfortunately this film rarely makes the best of its premise. The opening sequence, featuring a fun, ultraviolent takedown of a group of gangsters by a balaclava clad gunman, is well-shot and ramps up the excitement. A subsequent fist-fight, in which Sato must pretend to take a beating while actually being completely in control, is one of the best examples of the blend of comedy and action the film is aiming for. However, a lot of the jokes fall flat. For every solid character-based comedy moment, such as this fight or the former killer’s attempts to reinvent himself as an artist, there are weak running gags, such as his aversion to hot food and his love of childish comedian Jackal Tomioka that make little sense and serve to undermine any potential threat or tension. It is a fine line to tread between comedy and action, and this film pushes both to extremes with sexual violence and brutal stabbings sitting uncomfortably alongside the slapstick humour. The action sequences are enjoyable, but slightly undermined by the sense that “Sato” will never be killed or even seriously injured. It is a cartoon world, with exagerrated stereotypes, that struggles to maintain tension or establish emotional connection to the characters.

“The Fable” is a comedy-action film that fails to fully satisfy as either. It is a shame as the action sequences where things fall into place give a glimmer of what could have been, but the tonal inconsistency sadly let it down. The cast do a reasonable job given the script, playing up the larger-than-life characters, but again they struggle to resonate on more than a superficial level, mostly conforming to stereotypes such as the undercover hero, the love interest, or the psychopathic villain. The film works as a slightly silly action story, with a few stand out scenes, and is never outright bad, but rather underwhelming.

Battle Girl The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay (1991) by Kazuo Komizu

After a meteor lands in Tokyo Bay, the chemical reaction causes parts of the population to turn into zombies. A blockade is placed round the area and the ground defence force take control of the city. While they scramble to create an antidote, Keiko (Cutie Suzuki), the daughter of an army colonel, is brought in to help rescue any survivors. She later comes face to face with the Fujioka (Kenji Otsuki), the leader of the ground defence force, and his sinister plans.

Written by Hitoshi Matsuyama and directed by Kazuo Komizu, “Battle Girl” is classic B-movie fare, with an outlandish premise and predictable plot that serves only to move the characters from one action scene to another. The film is self-aware enough to realise its inherent silliness, often leaning into it, for example having Keiko lift a man by the neck upside down, or a zombie that is diced up into pieces. Cutie Suzuki, a pro-wrestler before starring in this film, has a great presence, clearly familiar with portraying a tough character. It is perhaps surprising that the use of her skills as a fighter is quite limited, with only a few moments showing off wrestling moves. For the most part she is a generic action heroine. Despite the predictable plot, the film throws in enough elements to keep things engaging, such as the ‘Battle Kids’, a group of young survivors who have teamed up to try and escape the city, and the ‘Monsters’, a group of thugs charged with preventing Keiko discovering Fujioka’s secrets. The action scenes are engaging, again benefitting from having a wrestler in the lead role, and the decapitations, explosions, and gun fights ensure there is rarely a dull moment. There are a few laughably poor special effects, understandable given the small budget, using obvious dummies; but for the most part the gore is good. Where the film does excel is in creating an eerie post-apocalyptic environment, with sparsely furnished industrial settings giving a sense of desolation and decay. The ambient score likewise emphasises this threat-laden atmosphere. There are a couple of strong visuals and scenes in the film too, particularly when Keiko confronts a group of zombies, and the plot builds to two fantastic large scale sequences of zombie assaults on the survivors.

On the whole, “Battle Girl” is a fun, fast-paced, action-horror, with an entertaining turn from star Cutie Suzuki. The themes of corrupt officials and military personnel, the dangers of radiation and scientific arrogance are familiar to the genre and the plot will not surprise fans of this type of story. However, there is some genuine artistry here in the stylish direction, soundscape and set design that make it worth a watch.

The Drifting Classroom (1987) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Based on the horror manga by Kazuo Umezu, “The Drifting Classroom” follows a group of International School students in Kobe after their classroom is lost in a time-slip. Shou (Yasufumi Hayashi) leaves home after arguing with his mother, heading out to school where he meets up with his other classmates. Not long into the school day the building begins to shake. At first believing it is an earthquake, the teachers and children try to remain calm as they assess the damage. However, looking out of the window they see that they are in a mysterious desert-like world. They are later threatened by aliens attacking the school. They must learn to adapt and survive in this hostile new environment, while back in Kobe the people speculate about the sudden disappearance of the school.

“The Drifting Classroom” is a chaotic, action-packed, children’s adventure film with dark undertones. It shifts rapidly from a spirit of light-hearted comedy as the children explore this new world, their familiar surroundings made unfamiliar as they are now filled with sand, and terrifying horror as giant insect-like aliens arrive to terrorize them. The film mixes in other elements such as survival drama as they elect a leader and try to work out how to live on the supplies available in the school. The young cast do a great job, bringing a youthful exuberance to their roles. The primary characters are Shou, Mark (Thomas Sutton), Ayumi (Aiko Asano) and the youngest Yu, but the supporting cast do a fantastic job in creating a sense of barely controlled chaos, such as you might expect in a school full of children in such circumstances. Obayashi’s direction is suited to this bizarre blend of science-fiction, horror, and adventure, with the sympathetic camera moving wildly in concert with the cast. The ambitious story, involving time-slips, other worlds, and aliens, is achieved with a blend of CG special effects, green screen, and stop motion creature work. It is a story full of twists that is endlessly entertaining.

While the premise of the film, a school caught in a timeslip, seems like it would lend itself to a relatively slight fantasy drama, there is a dark subtext to “The Drifting Classroom” that sets it above a simple throwaway adventure tale.

If you wish to avoid spoilers, please check out the film before reading further.

Part way through the film, Shou finds a memorial in the desert with the names of all the teachers and pupils he is stranded with. Other hints in the film, such as a character telling Shou’s mother that “children always go to the future”, and the slow pull out shot at the end of the film, indicate that in fact these children are marooned on a hostile post-apocalyptic earth, devastated possibly by nuclear war (an earlier scene sees one adult shouting “they finally pushed the button”). The film doesn’t shy away from death, with many students perishing due to a lack of food, and the aforementioned memorial. It confronts it’s audience, primarily children, with these harsh realities about life. The filling of the school with sand is an incredible visual metaphor for the timeslip they have gone through. They are literally trapped in the sands of time, left abandoned by previous generations thoughtless or reckless actions. Though there is hope at the end of the film, it is slight, with the children abandoned to their fate on this inhospitable planet, presumably ruined by those that came before. The ecological, anti-nuclear message is never made explicitly, but it is clearly there. A fantastical adventure with a troubling message about the world we leave to future generations.