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 of the finest crime films I have seen.
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 Eyes of the Spider.
Japanese Title: 蜘蛛 の 瞳
Romaji: Kumo no Hitomi
Release Date: February 21st, 1998 (Japan)
Running Time: 83 mins.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring: Sho Aikawa, Dankan, Ren Osugi, Sadao Abe, Susumu Terajima, Moe Sakura, Kumi Nakamura, Satoshi Kajiwara, Shun Sugata
When we first see Nijima (Aikawa) we find him in the process of taking vengeance.
He has kidnapped the person who murdered his daughter Mitsuko six years ago. After taking revenge. Nijima cannot adjust to normal life with his wife Noriko and is unsettled, life has lost its meaning and he’s haunted by his actions. Then he runs into Iwamatsu (Dankan), an old friend from high school.
Iwamatsu offers Nijima a job. Iwamatsu runs what he calls an “import and export” business from a warehouse stacked with empty boxes and toys. This is a front for a kidnapping business overseen by a larger yakuza clan, where he and his three employees kidnap and murder to order.
It’s an intriguing job offer for Nijima who finds that he has a talent for the job and enjoys exercising it. But when he is approached by Naomi (Osugi), the gangster who oversees his small band of kidnappers, he finds out that he may be being double-crossed.
If Serpent’s Path was all about how trauma makes us narrow our behaviour to our essential core values then Eyes of the Spider is all about how trauma breaks those values. Again, at the heart of this film is the death of a daughter the trauma of which drives a man outside the bounds of normal behaviour, erasing moderation and civility in favour of digressions into the extremes of a dark side which social constructs like family and law keep bound. If all this sounds serious and grim then you will be surprised because it is pretty amusing… or maybe I’m just twisted… Whatever the case, it is fun to watch.
At the heart of the film is the character break Nijima goes through. After he transgresses normal morality with his act of vengeance, this caring husband, this mild-mannered man, this bored company employee flirts and embraces an increasingly violent but detached gangster persona to fill in an emotional vacuum created by the trauma of his daughter’s death. Nijima lives in relatively comfortable home with his wife Noriko and his job looks safe although he clearly finds it unfulfilling.
Their lives have been robbed of meaning with the death of their daughter. The trauma of the act and the emptiness it brings means that although they continue to function, they do so apathetically and the two are hiding wounds that literally haunt them in the film but as dialogue exchanges and behaviour reveals, they are supportive of each other. It’s not enough for Nijima who seeks vengeance and gets it but the act simultaneously awakens a darker side that grows to define him and alerts the criminal underworld to his presence.
In steps Iwamatsu.
I was looking for a guy like you. Someone I know. Wanna work for me?
This is where things become comedic. The set-up is conventional but Kurosawa has no time for genre conventions and pretty much throws them down his stairs of surrealism and out the door marked dry-humour and films the results. His long-takes and elliptical editing are utilised to create the sense of absurdity in the film which is full of scenes tweaking genre clichés that are usually done seriously and conventionally. It comes off strange and wonderful, preventing this from being a conventional thriller title and making it a lovely little gem of a crime film.
Iwamatsu’s kidnapping business is not the most professional outfit. Iwamatsu is a bit of an amateur wrestler, taking out his anger issues on cardboard boxes. He is working with two young guys and a beautiful girl full of dumb stories who practice roller-blading. The youngsters appear to be more like bored youths who treat kidnapping, shooting people, playing ball games and fishing with the same moral equivalence.
Then there’s the supposedly serious yakuza side such as the taking of an oath of brotherhood and paying respects to clans and betrayals and violence. None of this carries any dramatic weight because Kurosawa subverts everything with a touch of humour like the amateurishness of the acts or the weird behaviour of people. There’s also the staccato rhythm of the scenes as they come one after the other with little to join them other than the fact we know this the route conventional thrillers follow.
The induction into the yakuza family led by Shun Sugata who is an amateur paleontologist who leads Nijima on a merry chase:
The moral dilemma offered by a friend and the sexy gangster girl is stripped of the usual eroticism:
The conversation about betrayal with Ren Osugi who is not leaning out of the window of the car he is in as you would see in a lot of movies but standing out of a sunroof and following Nijima who changes directions (I found the clip on youtube and I wish I kept it), all of it is like a parody of the genre especially because the sequences and relationships don’t play out how we would expect them to.
Sho Aikawa, Ren Osugi and Shun Sugata regularly crop up in and are more famous for their roles in gangster films by Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano but Kurosawa likes to get them to play against type. The Japanese comedian Dankan (Getting Any? Boiling Point), with his straight faced delivery of nonsense is another clue to how seriously Kurosawa is taking the clichés. Then the fossil hunting sequence which is almost as fun as the antics seen in Kitano’s Sonatine. Yakuza acting goofily in the sun as relaxing music plays.
Kurosawa pulled a similar trick with another genre he likes, horror. In that case it was Loft which starred Miki Nakatani of Ring 2 fame. It veered from his classic hair-raising hauntings to parodies of melodrama and overbearing music seen in other J-horror. The only real through line to follow with Eyes of the Spider and the thing that makes it so fascinating is the trauma that afflicts Nijima and Noriko. It is tragically clear they are hurting more than they let on and these sections of the films are like being doused with cold water. While Noriko does not have access to the traditionally male ability to lash out at the world over injustice, Nijima does and he goes down a path of violence familiar to other films but Kurosawa makes it weird and winding.
As one character says, “emptiness isn’t misery. It’s the beginning of something new.” Emptiness is an idea Kurosawa loves to explore as his yurei in Pulse and the relationship as seen at the heart of the film Séance are defined by them. It is tragic in that film but both funny and tragic here. Tragic because happiness and normality are sacrificed and sort of funny chaos ensues. By the time the end comes, existential values are ultimately changed as Nijima’s normality is irrevocably gone and his office-drone existence is shattered. Perhaps it was necessary for his sanity.
What I do know is that I had a lot of fun watching the film and you don’t need to know references to 90’s yakuza films to get a lot out of it because it’s entertaining anyway. Strangely, I found it relaxing and easy to watch.