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Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a director who always commands attention, and so it should be of no small interest to fans that Third Window Films have made available for the first time on DVD outside Japan two of his early films, “Eyes of the Spider” and “Serpent’s Path”. Shot back in 1998, the films are cinematic twins, having been part of a challenge to Kurosawa to make two low budget films in two weeks with the same cast and basic themes. The result was a pair of films, both written by Hiroshi Takahashi of “Ringu” fame, which despite both being concerned with a father seeking revenge for the murder of his young daughter, take the viewer to very different places by very different routes.
“Eyes of the Spider” features Kurosawa and Takashi Miike collaborator Sho Aikawa as Nijima, an average, everyday man who at the start of the film tracks down the man who raped and murdered his 8-year-old daughter. Though the man protests his innocence to the last, Nijima tortures, kills and buries him, an act which, far from being cathartic, only serves to make his life feel empty and pointless. After one day meeting an old school friend, he becomes involved with a firm of untrained and often incompetent assassins, quickly finding that he has a real talent for killing. Though his new job brings him a renewed sense of self, life becomes complicated when a Yakuza boss tries to tempt him to join his gang, asking him to investigate his new friends.
“Serpent’s Path” also stars Sho Aikawa, whose Nijima is this time an average seeming teacher, who agrees to help his friend Miyashita (Teruyuki Kagawa, later in Kurosawa’s superb “Tokyo Sonata”) find the man responsible for the killing of his young daughter. The film begins with the two having kidnapped a low level Yakuza potential suspect, who they imprison in an abandoned warehouse and proceed to torture. After the man insists someone else was responsible, Miyashita and Nijima start working their way through a series of possible murderers, each bringing them close to the dark truth and further down a road of increasing brutality from which there looks to be no return.
Combined, “Eyes of the Spider” and “Serpent’s Path” make for a fascinating and challenging cinematic experiment, and one which really underlines the fact that Kiyoshi Kurosawa is undoubtedly one of the most talented directors working in Japan today. Though the two may sound relatively straightforward from the above synopses, neither film sticks to traditional narratives, avoiding the usual plotting and melodrama which characterises the revenge genre. Kurosawa approaches the subject with his usual detached eye, with little emotional involvement or easy ways in for the viewer, and through this stripped down approach the films seem to be commenting on the film making process itself and the importance and manipulation of story and character. Though the two are not sequels or explicitly linked to each other, they do share recurring motifs, in particular the question of identity and the murderousness inherent in the human condition and the ease with which people adapt to violence. Kurosawa has often made use of doppelgangers in his films, and the two as abstract, cracked reflections of each other here represent this taken to an intellectually and philosophically compelling degree that demands repeat viewings, blurring the lines and deepening understanding of each other.
At the same time, what’s really pleasing here is the fact that, all such highbrowed concerns aside, both films work very well indeed on a more basic level as tense and harrowing thrillers. While both are more ambiguous and puzzling in places than the average revenge or Yakuza outing (particularly in terms of their endings), Kurosawa successfully mixes the experimental and the grounded, with a masterful mix of the dark and comic. Bleakly atmospheric in their depictions of bland landscapes and eerily empty spaces, the films see the director generating suspense and unease through long and static shots, working in moments of shocking bloodshed and cruelty here and there to keep the viewer off-balance. It’s arguably the moments of humour which really stick in the mind though, Kurosawa working in some amusingly surreal scenes which skilfully underline the grim folly and human weakness at the centre of all the pain and death.
Though of the two, “Serpent’s Path” feels the more accomplished and is overall the more enjoyable, “Eyes of the Spider” is also impressive, and the two are definitely best watched back to back in the intended manner. A must-see for any fans of Kiyoshi Kurosawa or Japanese cinema, the double-bill release marks another triumph for Third Window Films, who again deserve nothing but praise for making these early cult works available.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (director) / Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Yoichi Noshiyama, Hiroshi Takahashi (screenplay)
CAST: Shô Aikawa