V-cinema receives an unusual yet highly imaginative outing in the form of a double bill from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the director (and sometimes writer) behind such diverse films as the tense horrors Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001) and the dramatic Tokyo Sonata (2008). For such an enthusiastic and distinct individual the prospect of making Eyes of the Spider and Serpent’s Path must surely have been a project that was both interesting and challenging. These were to be two modestly budgeted yakuza stories filmed with the same cast over a two week period; an unusual proposition that Kurosawa appears to have taken up with relish. The films have not had any real showing outside Japan, but are to be released by Third Window films. On the surface the stories appear similar – fathers seeking revenge after the death of their child resulting in vengeance of a brutal nature, as well as their involvement with criminal fraternities. No cinema release? Of course not, this is V-cinema, the realm of dodgy low budget straight-to-video quickies which give their makers artistic and stylistic freedom that abounds in ways that mega-buck studios will never embrace. Let’s not forget that Miike Takeshi started as a V-cinema creator and Fudoh: The New Generation (1996) launched him into art notoriety. So it’s good to see Kurosawa, a highly respected feature film director return to lower budgets and, most importantly, embrace the concept of restricted time and budget to create two films that have similar basic themes but are fundamentally different.

Serpent’s Path

Miyashita (Teruyuki Kagawa), a former yakuza, has dark issues to address as his daughter Emi has been killed in the most horrible way: 16 stab wounds ‘right little finger and left middle finger injured’ as well as lacerations and possible sexual assault. With his friend Nijima (Sho Aikawa), a professor friend, Miyashita seeks vengeance on the perpetrator of this heinous deed, convinced that he is a member of a particular yakuza group. ‘If it’s the wrong guy he’s part of the same group anyway,’ so the pair kidnap Otsuki, tie him up, shove him in the boot of the car and drive him away to a remote disused warehouse. They restrain him on a wall and torture the perceived perpetrator. But matters change when Otsuki leads them to doubt that he actually is the person responsible for the murder and instead the vengeful pair seek reprisals against the person they now believe to be the killer, the deeply disturbing Hiyama. Violence is golden, providing that is centred on the person actually responsible.

Questions concerning the identity of the criminal and the nature of justice and reason form the basis of Serpent’s Path. Its laid-back style, interspersed with violence and a great deal of dry humour, particularly when depicting the incompetence of the two kidnappers, enhances the dilemmas that face the characters. Notable is the use of single shot scenes that increase the tension and give a sense of progression to what amounts to a simple, albeit absorbing, plot. Scenes where the pair have the alleged murderer chained to a wall to revitalise perceived memories and clues are likewise heightened by the use of static takes. In a modern cinematic world where more is (often) less, this stylistic approach may be the consequence of time and budgetary restrictions but actually augments the intensity of the story and focuses your attention on the predicament that the characters have to address, all enhanced by terrific performances from the actors.

Eyes of the Spider

Nijima (Sho Aikawa) is a salaryman whose daughter was brutally murdered six years previously. Nijima is certain he has found the culprit so he captures him, interrogates him, tortures and kills him, burying the body on a patch of wasteland. However, he and his wife cannot seem to return to a normal existence, and when he meets a former school-friend, an acquaintance really, he is offered a position that is worlds apart from his mundane office job. His wife worries about the excess hours but Nijima, having buried the corpse of the man he believed killed his daughter, is now rehabilitating with a gang of yakuza, even if elements of the job, such as rubber stamping endless forms, speed skating and fossil hunting are not what he imagined this career might involve. Let’s not mention the fishing. His loyalty to his friend is tested when rivalry with another gang leader comes into play.

Although thematically similar to Serpent’s Path and with similarly restrained use of camera, editing and action, Eyes of the Spider is a little more complex film in its instigation. The child’s death is integral to the foundation of the story but is, in this film, the catalyst for Nijima embarking on a new career and not the primary motivation for his actions. With a similarly minimal plot structure, Eyes of the Spider evolves into a more rounded exercise than its partner in terms of its style and narrative revelation. Throughout the film Kurosawa is careful in his use of camerawork either to save on restrictions in time or enhance his actors’ performances. Often this is through the use of long shots that immerse the viewer into their world in a manner that is almost claustrophobic but he often ensures that there is a wry sense of humour running throughout. Visual gags, such as the scene when Nijima is approached by the rival yakuza boss in a car driving down a Tokyo high street, the camera pans back and forth to follow Nijima’s stroll and the boss’s car as the yakuza leader becomes increasingly agitated at his inability to convince the man to converse with him. It’s a sequence that is important to the narrative but also witty.

Both films are fascinating for their succinct storytelling, careful direction and strong acting. Highly recommended for a viewing or two, either as a double bill or split into a fortnight’s viewing.