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.

This Transient Life (1970) by Akio Jissoji

Siblings begin an illicit, incestuous affair in this erotic drama touching on lust and faith from Akio Jissoji. 21-year old Masao Hino (Ryo Tamura) is a disappointment to his father, neither attending university or wishing to follow him into the family business. His friend, priest Ogino (Haruhiko Okamura), introduces him to Master Mori (Eiji Okada), who is hard at work carving a statue of Kanon, goddess of harmony, for his temple. While their parents are away Masao begins a sexual relationship with his 25-year old sister Yuri (Michiko Tsukasa). In order to keep this secret from their parents he tells her she must marry Iwashita (Kotobuki Hananomoto), their groundskeeper. Masao moves away to become an apprentice to Master Mori, later beginning an affair with Mori’s wife, Reiko (Mitsuko Tanaka).

Akio Jissoji’s “This Transient Life”, from a script by Toshiro Ishido, is a beautifully artistic film, displaying its creativity in every frame and scene; fluid direction is used to create a sense of life and vibrancy. A striking example of this is in the scene where the camera snakes its way through the Hino home, following Masao and Yuri, becoming voyeur documentarist while capturing an emotionality and physicality that draws the audience into the moment. The cinematography likewise creates stunning shots that seem full of metaphor and meaning, with angles emphasizing elements of the setting, such as the immovable stones of the temple or the ranks of statues that stand silent watch. These alongside the extreme close-ups help draw a distinction between the living and the dead, the transient and the eternal, in keeping with the themes of the film. The music by Toru Fuyuki is also used in an descriptive capacity, with sudden stings emphasising characters coming to stark, often shocking, realisations. Underlying all of this cinematic inventiveness is a story that harks back to ancient tragedies, drawing in timeless themes of sex, lust and faith. As with the chiaroscuro lighting, the choices faced by the characters are often stark, though their apparent simplicity belies a cauldron of roiling passions and competing desires. Aside from the sex scenes, the action is surprisingly static, with characters often lost in self-reflection or in discussion with others. The real action here is on an emotional and philosophical level, and the actors do a fantastic job with the nuanced portrayals of these characters, striving towards higher purpose in an apparently godless world.

“This Transient Life” is the first of Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, though you do not need to be a scholar of the religion to appreciate the themes expressed. They are universal and timeless, a conflict between base human desire and a quest for something more, something transcendent or spiritual, that people have striven for throughout history. Masao is a man who appears to have no morality. As he explains to Ogino the priest, his lack of belief in heaven and hell leads him to act as he will, unconstrained by human law. At several points throughout the film he asks questions of Mori and Ogino that shake their faith. He is a rogue element in a society that is strictly conditioned to follow the precepts set down by religious orders, in this case Buddhist ideals and the notion of a correct or just path. His lust for his sister is a sin that cannot be countenanced by his friend, but in his worldview, the fact that he has the capacity and will to commit such an act seems at odds with any divine plan for humanity. Masao and Ogino have a tete-a-tete in which his troubling philosophy is offered up to the monk, who rejects it, but not without being shocked by its potential truthfulness. The ambiguous nature of the film, in particular the shocking ending, allows the audience to make up their own mind about both faith and morality. A stunning film that illustrates a deeply controversial and thought-provoking story with supreme artistry.