Third Window Films continue their fine tradition of bringing little-seen gems from Japan to the UK with a double-bill of early films from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose Tokyo Sonata and Cure have received widespread critical acclaim. Kurosawa has garnered a reputation for defying – if not completely subverting – generic conventions, whilst creating complex narratives which have marked him out as a unique voice in contemporary Japanese cinema. Serpent’s Path and Eyes of the Spider both offer an interesting insight into the formative development of Kurosawa’s style, with the precedents of his approach on clear display.
Serpent’s Path in particular takes a conventional and rigid revenge narrative and twists and contorts the formula, making the story more like a fluid and writhing angry snake – unexpected and extremely dangerous. The film stars Sho Aikawa, now a regular face in the films of luminaries such as Rokuro Mochizuki and Takashi Miike, as Nijima, a teacher who is helping his friend Miyashita to uncover the truth about the mystery surrounding the murder of his young daughter. The two men’s path is one of torture and violence, as they hunt down the truth via a suspect list of gangsters and reprobates. Kurosawa is playful with perspective throughout; with key plot developments concealed and revealed with masterful control.
Although dark in tone, Serpent’s Path never veers into the territory of exploitation cinema the subject matter may suggest, instead offering an intricate and enigmatic morality tale, aided in no small part by the stand out performance from Aikawa which is both bold and nuanced. Whilst Eyes of the Spider shares a similar and familiar narrative starting point, a revenge plot, this is an altogether different beast, and demonstrates the remarkable versatility of Kurosawa as a filmmaker. Aikawa returns as Nijima, and again we have a murdered child who needs avenging, but beyond these points, the film veers into new territory tonally. Kurosawa seems to take great pleasure in taking his established character into bizarre and oddball situations and set pieces.
This time, Nijima is embroiled into the politics of a mafia gang, finding himself in an increasingly strange underworld which involves fishing with gangsters. Playful and satirical in equal measure, Eyes of the Spider may lack the emotional punch of Serpent’s Path, but then that is entirely the point, as Kurosawa is content to tickle rather than strike out to make his point. Both films offer an invaluable early insight into the work of Kurosawa, entertaining, satirical and playful with narrative conventions, they mark the emergence of a major talent in Japanese cinema. Kurosawa may not have the name recognition of a Kitano, but on the evidence of these early films, this is a crime that should require further investigation by any fan of Japanese cinema.
Spencer Murphy (CUEAFS)