I’m a big Kiyoshi Kurosawa fan but when Third Window Films announced they had two Japanese films made by Kurosawa in the 90’s I had no idea what they could be and I had little to guide me but posters and a brief plot synopsis. Less than a year on from that announcement and Third Window Films has released the two films in a set. I have watched them and I have to admit that these are two excellent crime films.
The films originate from a single offer. Kurosawa was offered the chance to make two low-budget V-cinema films in two weeks with the same cast and so he came up with Eyes of the Spider and Serpent’s Path. Both have many similarities not least the cast and story about a about a man seeking revenge for the murder of his daughter but the similarities end there as Kurosawa’s execution of both films differ. This review covers Serpent’s Path.
Japanese Title: 蛇の道
Romaji: Hebi no Michi
Release Date: February 21st, 1998 (Japan)
Running Time: 85 mins.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writer: Hiroshi Takahashi
Starring: Sho Aikawa, Teruyuki Kagawa, Yurei Yanagi, Shiro Shitamoto, Hua Rong Weng
The film starts with two men travelling by car in a bland urban environment. The two couldn’t be more different. The calm one who is driving is Nijima (Aikawa), a physics tutor, while his passenger who is tense and on edge is Miyashita (Kagawa) a former yakuza. The two pull up in their car outside an anonymous house. Pretending to be a deliveryman, Nijima forces his way into the house of a middle-aged man and kidnaps him, taking him to a warehouse, where he and Miyashita chain him to a wall and proceed to mistreat the man and threaten him with violence.
As Nijima hovers in the background with an air of indifference, Miyashita looks about ready to explode as he howls and paces about. He soon drags a television in front of the increasingly angry and defiant man and plays footage of a girl in a playground.
The man watches the footage incredulously but begins to get really scared when Miyashita paws at the video image of the girl and reveals she is his daughter then tells him she was brutally murdered and he wants a confession of guilt. The man is horrified and starts blaming others. Nijima and Miyashita have no choice but to continue down the path of vengeance.
The synopsis sounds rather formulaic but this film is anything but. Kurosawa does his usual trick of taking a familiar genre, in this case crime, and alters it through his fascination with human psychology to create something unique. At stake is the way people conform to their true nature and beliefs even when pushed to extremes.
Kurosawa once again exposes the horror hiding behind the mundane and in our heads. Those endless trips through an unrelenting suburb made by Nijima and Miyashita, their sojourns to abandoned warehouse where people are tortured are like liminal places where monsters in the form of yakuza lurk and a place where we can unleash our own monsters.
We accept that while Miyashita and Nijima are poles apart as characters, they are on a righteous mission of vengeance, especially after Miyashita reads out the litany of suffering his daughter endured and we see his emotional anguish. But it’s not so simple… Miyashita first appears to be an innocent and the death of his daughter has seemingly cracked his psyche and provided him the motivation to access a deep well of violence. He is like a madman ready to go over the edge and brutalise anyone who stands in the way but as the film goes on he shows that this is his true identity. The brute yakuza. It’s apparent in the way he places Nijima in the role of a beloved aniki while he plays at being a devoted underling and becoming a yakuza again to attain his vengeance. His violent personality which bubbles away is not be something new.
Nijima’s motivations are seemingly more clouded. With his thick-rimmed glasses and average build he seems an unlikely hit-man, an unlikely accomplice to a criminal and when we learn he is a physics professor it makes a better fit since he brings a professorial and studious approach to Miyashita’s journey for revenge. We cling to him as an island of sanity surrounded by corruption. But why does he do this? When he does explain his motivation as “I always wanted to try something like this”, we see an ocean of apathy for humanity. Even when under pressure he retains his cool and calculating demeanour. This is just another equation for him to set up and modify and solve and so he takes to hurting humans with ease.
The script, which comes from writer Hiroshi Takahashi (writer of Ringu, Ringu 2 and the recently released Tadaima Jacqueline) starts off conventionally and works in all of the clichés but as the narrative progresses and these fascinating characters grow it becomes a twisting and misleading as it plays with perspectives and motivations. Our conventional reading of revenge thrillers just won’t do here and what emerges is a snaking and delightfully sly story with an ending that is so unexpected and powerfully delivered it is like a slap to the face. Sounds horrible, but it was fun.
The film is shot patiently with long takes and a detached air and Kurosawa’s preference for an elliptical editing works in providing a degree of ambiguity which makes the film’s story that much more effective at being surprising. It is Kurosawa’s taste for long takes that makes the dry humour work. The increasing amount of yakuza Nijima and Miyashita have to work through to get to a culprit is full of blackly humorous moments such as the assault on the golf course in the deadpan way it is executed. The long takes also foregrounds the acting which is what makes the characters really come to life.
Kagawa oozes madness and grief but there is an air of seediness. In scenes he can go from being meek when remembering his daughter or dealing with Nijima to cackling at drop of a hat and unleashing furious tirades. Aikawa is more opaque next to Miyashita craziness and we believe in Nijima as a figure of sanity, a man who is intelligent and supportive and we hope this physics prof survives amidst all of the yakuza but it is not so simple which is the films greatest strength.
Ultimately, what unfolds is one of Kurosawa’s better written films which defies all attempts to pigeon-hole it by being unique through its use of perspective and subverting of character archetypes and our understanding of them. I found it an enthralling and exciting thriller which kept me hooked.