Eyes of the Spider / Serpent's Path Review
Third Window plunder the back catalogue of Kiyoshi Kurosawa for two little seen films starring Sho Aikawa shot in 1998. Aikawa has proved popular with a lot of the fine film-makers who have made it out from V-cinema to more general acclaim - people like Rokuro Mochizuki, Takashi Miike and Kurosawa himself. An intense yet sympathetic presence, Aikawa has the everyday charm to be Miike's unusual superhero in the Zebraman films and the intensity and power to be one of his explosive antagonists in the Dead or Alive series. Here he portrays two men after revenge, one in control and the other not.Kurosawa's The Serpents Path is an elegant and unexpected revenge story that plays winningly with audience perspective - building empathy before dissipating it in careful plot developments. Aikawa plays Nijima, a maths teacher, who has befriended and is helping Miyashita to track down the truth about his murdered eight year old daughter. The facts of her demise are savage and transgressive, and Nijima acts as the rational catalyst to aid Miyashita's rather incompetent and pitiful investigation. We follow the men as they kidnap and torture gangsters and find themselves hunted as well.
The joy about a Kurosawa film is the way he defeats genre expectations and creates rich stories by following his own vision. Here, his narrative, provided by Ringu franchise writer Hiroshi Takahashi, starts in the middle of events and flips back and forth in time as Miyashita searches for his justice. Nijima is an enigmatic character whose reasons for helping Miyashita become clearer as the action moves on, and part of the richness of this particular work comes from his inspiring maths lessons where young minds, of the kind destroyed by our villains, are enervated by the solutions that Nijima and his pupils find together.Peppered by interesting spins on characterisation, plenty of dark humour and a general inventiveness, Serpent's Path is a gritty delight that causes the viewer to stay glued to the end. The underlying causes of and the child's murder itself will prove too much for some approaching this film, but there is nothing exploitative in how these plot points are used and in the conclusion a kind of rough justice is pursued to provide the moral payoff.
Eyes of the Spider is a different kettle of fish altogether despite numerous similar starting points. Again, Aikawa plays Nijima, again the story starts with revenge for the murder of a daughter, and again Nijima is part of a criminal undertaking. Still, when considering the narrative, the tone and the action, everything else is changed. It is freer, funnier and a little less dark in intention, indeed it even removes Nijima's basic motivation for all his choices in the climax - daring the viewer to find the carnage we've witnessed as meaningless.Where Nijima orchestrated the events of the Serpents Path, here he submits to others. Due to carrying out his revenge, Nijima is blackmailed by an old school friend and minor Yakuza, Iwamatsu, into joining his gang and then finds himself in the middle of a turf war as a slightly reluctant heavy and hitman. When Iwamatsu falls out of favour with gang bosses, Nijima is presented with a possible solution to his problems only to discover that they may never have existed anyway.
Here Kurosawa entertains with satirical sequences that fans of Kitano's Sonatine might enjoy greatly. We get Nijima going fishing with the gang, we get Nijima playing tag with the slightly eccentric gang leader and a bizarre sequence with Nijima being chased for information by a gangster in a car. Delightfully confounding the genre, his revenging hero and probably most viewers, Eyes of the Spider is every bit as enjoyable as the other film on review and evidence of what a talented director can get out of few resources other than good ideas and intelligence.
Continuing their welcome treatment of Asian cinema, Third Window place both films on a single region free dual layer disc. A single menu allows you to access scene menus for both films, or to choose to display the subtitles as well on this no-frills presentation without special features. Both films are presented at around 1.85:1 and are NTSC encoded progressive transfers, with optional English subtitles which have very few typos and are easy to follow.Now I am unaware of any other English friendly releases of these films on DVD before, so this release is very welcome. The audio quality is perfectly fine, reproducing voices and effects with clarity and at a decent bitrate. The goodish visual quality is supported by some edge enhancement, though nothing distracting, and with a sympathetic colour balance to retain the muted aesthetic of both films. The overall image is not over sharp or particularly detailed, and the contrast is fine throughout. In summary, a decent transfer with reliable sound.
Two excellent films released with goodish presentation. If you enjoyed Tokyo Sonata or Cure, I advise you to catch these two gems and this release is a solid way to do that.