Teruo Ishii's Blind Woman's Curse (1970), starring Meiko Kaji, is showing on MUBI March 24 – April 22, 2019 in the United States.
Meiko Kaji is a great physical actor, a difficult thing to be under the best of circumstances. Since the sound era began there has been a consistent bias against the use of a truly expressive, diverse physicality in acting. Action is meant for action films; prat-falls are meant for comedies. The finer grades of expression and emotion—love, irony, longing, wit, fury, diffidence, meanness—are meant to be expressed with words, or with those kinds of subtle gestures that often serve as the extension of words (body language, in short). Jean-Claude Van Damme does not star in romances (he should), Jackie Chan has never played the lead in a gritty, downbeat film about the great Pennsylvania coal strike of 1902 (he should). This is not to say that Kaji herself was primarily an action star. In her roles she was more like a young Burt Lancaster, a tough—someone who could suffer, who confronted extreme circumstance and didn’t shrink from violence. Many of her most striking moments involve endurance, a quality less easily captured on film than speed or strength—and more fraught, given its close association with suffering—but in the right hands just as cinematic.
She was typecast early, and in an era where it stuck. She began acting in 1965, just as the Japanese film industry was entering a period of severe contraction. The cause was seen as being competition from television, and the big mainstream studios reacted by becoming more formulaic, more targeted, and more lurid; even as they maintained their traditional command-and-control culture and their grip on the domestic box office. The result was a kind of corporatization of cult filmmaking, exploitation produced in mass quantities, cheaply but at a relatively high standard. The apotheosis of this trend occurred when Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest studio, converted to focusing primarily on softcore porn, so-called pink films; their flagship series was titled Roman Porno (roman = novel in French, porno = porno in English) and was known for its production values.
Within this system actors occupied a low rung. The studio ideal was to find a young actor, fit them into a mold, and then develop them undeviatingly into a star capable of anchoring a specific class of genre film. When Kaji started out she was undifferentiated, a pure commodity. She signed on with Nikkatsu (pre-porno), and was slotted into the endless series of yakuza films that were at the time their specialty. A brief selection of titles she starred in, chosen for the poetry of their names1: Turf War, Mini-Skirt Lynchers, The Clean-Up, One Hundred Gamblers, Step on the Gas!. In 1971 she finally broke through with Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss, a stylish piece of counter-culture bandwagoneering in which a gang of freedom loving young women get into knife fights, battle fascists, and indulge a passion for psychedelic rock. Kaji plays the gang’s leader, and her performance is quite modulated and fluid. She was already developing her still, austere, fundamentally masked style in other films of the same period, but that isn’t present here. Instead what stands out is her ease, her determined charisma, her naturalness with absurd situations (she is never parodic, never less than serious), and then mixed with these qualities is her hard edge of anger. The action of the film has her character gradually worn down and cornered before finally lashing out; her ability is to make the lashing out feel inevitable and powerful.
Girl Boss was followed by four sequels (noting that as with many other series at that time, the sequels were thematic, not continuing a single storyline). Kaji starred in all of them and emerged with her typecasting complete. She was a criminal, a leader, a woman abused and harried but never less than powerful; she is hardened but responsive to the suffering of those less powerful—more innocent—than her. She is an avenger.
In 1971 Nikkatsu made its transition to focusing on pink films; in response Kaji moved to another major studio, Toei. She was now established enough to have a certain degree of input in the films she worked on and the characters she portrayed. Toei assigned her to an adaptation of a popular manga, Female Convict Scorpion, again in series format, beginning with the film Female Convict #701. The story is blunt: a woman is betrayed by the man she loves, framed for a crime she did not commit, sent to a hellish prison; she escapes and settles the score. This Scorpion character, to be played by Kaji, was initially conceived of as a standard trope, a profane and aggressive female gangster; Kaji worked with the film’s director, Shunya Ito, to refine the role, to strip it down to a degree of simplicity and directness so that her acting could be almost entirely physical. The result is striking, a character whose emotions are all ligament and bone, so far gone into anger that for much of the film she is literally speechless. She lives by discipline, inner and outer—she is so tightly controlled by the forces that oppress her that her ability to resist depends on imposing an even more stringent self-control.
In some ways Scorpion, as played by Kaji, is a wild, hyper-violent reconfiguration of the iconic silent comedy hero, particularly those played by Buster Keaton (although note that Scorpion does speak occasionally, just very rarely). Like Keaton, she attempts to maintain her dignity while confronting a world that is bafflingly hostile. But while the obstacles he faces are typically class-based (a common plot device is to have Keaton fall in love with a woman who ranks above him socially), Kaji is repressed and abused due to her status as a woman and a criminal. Keaton reacts to his setbacks with a kind of confusion; there is a disconnect between the self-worth of his characters as they see it, and the harsher judgment of the exterior public. His films resolve when Keaton’s worth is proven to those around him, when he is accepted and when inner and outer perceptions are brought into harmony. Scorpion, however, will always be a woman and a criminal. No harmonization is possible, and in fact throughout Female Convict #701 the repression and disgust of the prison authorities towards her only intensifies, the contrast only worsens. The film is not building towards a synthesis, but to an explosion.
Like Keaton, Kaji has enormous, expressive eyes; as Scorpion these are often shown in extreme close-up, the screen a bar across her face. She is often in situation where she has to hold herself still, or to move only as instructed; for a portion of the film she is bound hand and foot. The movements of her eyes, slow and deliberate and threatening, express her latent power, her determination to leverage even the smallest degree of freedom into violence against her oppressors. Towards the end of Female Convict #701 she finally escapes from prison and begins killing off the men who framed her. In this sequence, dressed in a black trench coat and black wide-brimmed hat (the ensemble became iconic in Japan), she moves like a horror-film villain: slowly, inevitably; we can almost hear her joints creak. The only scenes in the film where she has a natural, free range of motion are in sequences where she is menaced: running, dodging, struggling. The legal, patriarchal system wants to control her; she wants to control herself. Control is only lifted when there is a balance of conflict between these two impulses.
Female Convict #701 was successful and was followed by a true sequel, Jailhouse 41 (1972), notable for its high degree of stylization and surrealism. These are qualities shared by many of Kaji’s films, and her career as an actor, the energy and techniques that she brought to her roles, is closely linked to the oddness, vividness, and grotesquerie of the images that she acted against.
Japanese cinema had always accommodated an exceptional degree of stylization. It had a close and lengthy relationship with traditional theatrical formats—benshi, performers who provided a live narration to accompany silent films, were used until the mid-1930s. Audiences were comfortable with abstraction, unnaturalness, with letting one thing stand in for another. However, the emphasis on style which overtook the film industry in the 1960s and 70s was of a more discomforting, personal order. As studios became more inflexible in the kinds of films they would sponsor, dictating scenarios and insisting on a growing ratio of sex and violence, style was left as the area in which directors had the most discretion. While Seijun Suzuki was famously fired by Nikkatsu for the Dadaist nature of his films, many other directors managed to stay employed while demonstrating only slightly less deviation from mainstream sensibilities. So long as they delivered the requisite pulp beats (for its Roman Porno films Nikkatsu reportedly demanded four sex acts/instances of nudity per hour), they were free to be wild in their aesthetic.
Kaji’s minimalism, then, was often a way of grounding the extremity of the situations her characters faced. The violence in her films, for example, is typically exaggerated to the point of near-camp. In Jailhouse 41 a man is castrated with a tree trunk; later, a river literally runs red with blood. Blood in general is copious and over-red, erupting hydraulically from the slightest contact between skin and edged surface. These images are right at the edge of being funny, and in other movies of the time they straightforwardly are. Kanji pulls them back. The violence surrounding her is extreme because it mirrors the huge, painful emotions that she will not allow herself to express. Her most natural mode is tragedy, an almost naturalistic tragedy that runs quietly beneath the operatic surfaces of her films.
This is clearest in Lady Snowblood (1973), the best known, most classical, and most restrained of her genre features (which is admittedly still not very restrained). Kaji plays a woman, Yuki Kashima, whose mother was assaulted and raped by four criminals; dying in childbirth, she vows that Yuki will carry out her revenge—although note that this will involve killing only three out of the four, because one is already dead (the film has an awkward, complicated plot). Yuki is spirited out of the prison and entrusted to a local monk. She grows up learning martial arts under his tutelage, and once old enough sets out to hunt down and kill her mother’s tormentors. Throughout there are signs that she is conflicted, even oppressed by this mission, by the costs of killing; yet she feels she cannot escape the duty laid on her. Thus Kaji is again playing a character who is in a sense imprisoned, the shift being that now it is only by refraining from vengeance that she might gain freedom. She does not escape: the film ends with her being stabbed and mortally wounded2 by the daughter of one of the men she has killed.
Lady Snowblood was made quickly and cheaply, and can be silly, but it has a core of live, burning emotion: Yuki’s growing sickness and anger at the impossible situation that she has been born into. As she is dying in the film’s final moments, crouched and bleeding in a snowfield, she screams. There’s no one to hear her, it’s a scream for her own sake, one of self-regret and world-regret. There is something lost and childlike in it; we feel that nothing here has been fair. She should have been free. It’s a beautiful unleashing of the anger we so often sense within Kaji, and a skillful subversion of the idea that an expression of anger should be cathartic. Here it is a lament.
Drained of melodrama, this was Kaji’s professional situation as well. She wanted more control as an actor, and to have more variety in her work, to not have it as a professional obligation that she be tied up and blasted with a firehose (as she was for Female Convict Number 701). She also felt that she wasn’t making enough money. Japanese actors of the time were notoriously underpaid. She was female talent in a system that assigned the control and profits to male management. She began to take more TV roles, where the work was steadier and less physically arduous; by thirty she was almost entirely out of film.
Today Kaji is known in the U.S. primarily through her role in Lady Snowblood, which through a quirk of history (probably having to do with its relatively early availability on VHS) has become semi-famous, a synecdoche for the violent, stylish ambience of 70s Japanese cinema. It was the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill; more recently the video for Post Malone’s rockstar references it. Some of Kaji’s other cult films are now streamable, including Jailhouse 41 which is something of a masterpiece. (In 2016, MUBI presented a retrospective of the Stray Cat Rock series.) The bulk of her filmography however isn’t readily available outside Japan, including the later films in which she was able to wrest slightly more creative control. To a degree she remains typecast even in her legacy.
Blind Woman's Curse was made in 1971, just as Kaji’s career was taking off, and shortly before she left Nikkatsu. It was her only collaboration with Teruo Ishii, whose fast, loose, and prolific career ran from the late 1950s into the early Aughts. Ishii had been instrumental in updating the yakuza film in Japan, taking a stale genre that had focused on old-fashioned tales of noble outlaws and modernizing it and scuffing it up. The result was eventually known as “borderless action,” films that portrayed organized crime as pervasive and amoral, and that focused on skirmishes between rival families. Ishii himself returned frequently to this model, while at the same time establishing himself as a director interested in but unconstrained by genre, whose films often reference concepts from multiple genres, assembling these fragments in striking and off-kilter ways.
Blind Woman's Curse is very much in this mold. The basic plot is a combination of borderless action tropes, featuring multiple warring yakuza clans and interlocking cycles of vengeance, and a kaidan, a traditional Japanese ghost story. Kaji plays Akemi Tachibana, a crime boss who, in a somewhat non-contextualized skirmish, wounds Aiko Gouda (Hoki Tokuda), blinding her. Some time later Gouda returns in the guise of a traveling circus performer, intent on revenge. Onto this simple set up are piled many complications—this is a film where the complications are the point. Tachibana is haunted by a ghostly black cat, and adopted by a boisterous group of female ex-cons. Various yakuza underlings execute an elaborate plot involving planted opium. A lovelorn dancer carries out a series of murders on Gouda’s behalf (the dancer was played by Tatsumi Hijikata, a well-known avant-guard choreographer; a good example of how blurry the line was at this time in Japanese cinema between instances of high and low art).
Each new development is a chance for Ishii to mete out doses of striking imagery, at which he excels. In the first scene we see a troupe of swordfighters with a dragon tattooed across their bare backs—in combat they are a living collage. Later, in the film’s final sequence, Tachibana and Gouda face off under a night sky in which a massive, improbable spiral hangs where we might expect the moon to be. Everything is done to stimulate, to shock or interest and briefly distract the audience. Where logic gets in the way it’s discarded.
Kaji’s role is typical, although her character is not as stripped down and forcefully stamped as those she would play after she moved to Toei. Tachibana is both the object of Gouda’s revenge and, following her betrayal by some yakuza underlings, an avenger herself. She is also a more practical, in-the-world character than either Scorpion or Lady Snowblood. She has a gang to run; she has responsibilities. She is human—when one of her friends is killed she cries (that is, a single tear runs down Kaji’s perfectly composed mask of scorn). In a way she can be imagined as the youthful precursor to the hardened, pain-wracked characters that Kaji would play only slightly later in her career. And Blind Woman's Curse is, in its ramshackle, exploitative way, a humane film. While full of the usual killings and grotesquery (Ishii would later work extensive in the ero-guro, erotic grotesque, sub-genre, melding elements of soft-core pornography and horror) it ends with a scene of mercy and rapprochement between Gouda and Tachibana. In this instance at least the abuses and identities of a scarring past can be laid aside. People can change. New roles can be assumed.