Nowadays, Kiyoshi Kurosawa maybe a familiar name on the festival circuit - a popular auteur whose newest work is always treated with a degree of happy anticipation. However, like many young filmmakers of his generation he struggled to find a healthy outlet for his burgeoning talent. After a brief foray into pink film, Kurosawa eventually found his niche in so called V-Cinema, i.e that which debuted on DVD (or earlier VHS) rather than on cinema screens yet without the dreaded negative connotations a phrase like ‘straight to video’ might carry in the English speaking world. Having had success with the Revenge Diptych, a two-part story of a policeman’s quest for revenge, he received an offer for two more similarly themed films, again working with Hiroshi Takahasi to script the other film.
Serpent’s Path and Eyes of the Spider are a thematic pair rather than a connected story like the Revenge films, but they both use a father’s thirst for vengeance against the man who brutally murdered his 6 year old daughter as a starting point. In Serpent’s Path, Miyashita (Teruyuki Kagawa), a petty gangster thinks he has located the murderer with the help of his friend Nijima (Sho Aikawa) who seems to be some kind of maths teacher whose class is filled with a very varied set of people all trying to solve a seemingly impossible equation. The two men torture the suspected culprit whilst showing him videos of the murdered girl and reciting details of the dreadful ordeal she went through at his hands. Have they got the right guy though? According to their suspect someone else did it - a high level, near untouchable Yakuza - and so another plan is formed (and it won’t be the last).
In Eyes of the Spider, by contrast, Nijima (Sho Aikawa once again) has located the man who killed his daughter, kidnapped him, and taken him to an apartment where he’s planned out a slow torturous death for him. However, either the man isn’t very resilient or Nijima isn’t very good at the whole torture business because the murderer dies pretty quickly - well before his expected departure date. Even though he’s tortured, killed and buried the man who did this to his child, very little seems to have changed. Nijima’s life is still defined by an all consuming emptiness where nothing means anything at all. So when he’s approached by a childhood friend who apparently now runs a slightly dodgy business, he finds himself accepting the offer of a new job. This new line of business quickly turns out to be more than he bargained for; not that it matters - will anything ever matter again or is Nijima forever lost in the emptiness grief where all life is cheap?
The two films are very different in terms of tone and atmosphere yet both share a sensibility that clearly binds them together as a pair. Like much of Kurosawa’s other work there’s a cold, almost clinical detachment that lends itself well to a sense of the absurd. Even though there are some very dark areas (notably in Serpent’s Path) a deep seam of surreal humour runs right through both pieces - it's impossible not to laugh at the sight of two men making off with a body bag over a golf course like a couple of farm boys with the neighbours’ apples, or a cool as ice guy being trolled with a recruitment request by a rival yazuka from a car repeatedly driving up and down alongside him. Neither of these films are your typical revenge thriller and although the futility of vengeance is certainly a discernible theme it isn’t the most prominent one.
As much as the films are different they compliment each other perfectly, which only speaks to Kurosawa’s limitless inventiveness as a director. Serpent’s Path is perhaps the more cerebral of the two with its Lynchian overtones of a lingering offscreen sense of dread and suggestions of misery built in at a cosmic level. Eyes of the Spider by contrast plays more like mid-career Kitano Yakuza movie; a dead pan story of a killer’s ennui. There’s no doubt that the films work best as a pair, as mirror reflections of each other, and thus should be seen as such. Once again Third Window Films have brought us a lost gem of recent Japanese cinema and we can only hope that they continue in their recent trend of unearthing these little seen, yet often important, films for our viewing pleasure.