From, and I take this directly from the Press Release, ‘oddball’ auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa comes an interestingly unique take on, not only Japanese gangster movies, but movie making in general. For the first time outside of Japan, where they debuted an astonishing 15 years ago (1998, for the lazy or numerically challenged), we have been bestowed with this double bill, courtesy of Third Window Films, of Serpent’s Path as well as Eyes Of The Spider.
Taking the relatively simple premise of gangster movies, as well as that Japanese staple it seems: revenge, Kurosawa manages to create two movies that are not only thematically similar, as well as sharing the same cast, but tonally different.
For the purpose of the review, and in order to avoid the lazy act of jumping between each movie, I will be looking at them individually before analyzing the concept as a whole.
Serpent’s Path follows the story of Miyashita, a former yakuza underling who has managed to track down his child’s killer with the help of his mysterious friend; Nijima. The story quickly unfolds, delivered a relatively breakneck pace to a point. Working together, Miyashita and Nijima kidnap a yakuza member who they believe to be responsible for the killing in order to allow Miyashita his revenge. This person denies the rape and murder of Miyashit’s 8 year old daughter, pinning the blame on another yakuza member; and so the story goes, with multiple members becoming involved as we go down this Looney Tunes rabbit hole of finger pointing and deniability.
There’s a hard hitting edge to the film making, despite how quickly the plot relies on convenience and accountability. The way that these prisoner’s are treated (usually being hit over the head with cardboard boxes, actually), coupled with Miyashita’s odd, cold and sinister personality allow Serpent’s Path a hardened edge; especially when you throw in the severely harsh way in which his daughter was killed (described in ridonkulous detail, by the way). The limited locations are utilized well, becoming reminiscent in a way of Tarantino’s clever usage of his own limitations for Reservoir Dogs; and the acting is on point, if not occasionally veering into the realms of OTT now and then.
Having been filmed in 1998 and, like with Eyes Of The Spider, on what seems to be a low/very low budget certain acceptances have to be made when viewing either of these outings. They don’t look amazing. The camera work is often on the shaky side, and some of the action scenes are pulled way back from, ironically, the action. That minor gripe aside however, Serpent’s Path is a well put together tale of revenge that has more than one or two twists along the way.
Eyes Of The Spider
The second of the two films, the unaccountably oddly named Eyes Of The Spider, concerns hard working salaryman, Nijima (same actor and character name, but different character), who manages to one day find the man responsible for the murder of his young daughter.
Can you spot the thematic similarities here?
After exacting his revenge killing, Nijima buries him and returns to his old, working, 9-5, lifestyle. That is until a seemingly chance encounter with an old high school friend sends him onto a personal journey of moral despair.
Eyes Of The Spider is the more ambitious of the two projects. It seems as though more time and budget was lavished upon it, the movie itself also having been written by Kurosawa, whereas Serpent’s Path came from a script by Hiroshi Takahashi. With multiple locations, many including expansive exterior shots, and a larger cast of characters, Eyes OF The Spider should have been the stand out between the two. Instead it feels disjointed from it’s hardened brother. Whereas Serpent’s Path took a gritty path to vengeance, pock marked here and there with moments of levity, Eyes Of The Spider seems to enjoy fucking with convention. There are a couple of scenes that demonstrate a madcap sense of style and humor that all at once feels true to the director, and yet innately Japanese at the same time. When Nijima first meets with the big boss, for example, he is told that he’ll get the information he wants. But only after he catches him! And so ensues a very long, static, shot of a very slow chase between the up and coming Nijima and his rock collecting boss.
This shifting tone of using humor to contrast the bleakness of Nijima’s situation and new job is then further juxtaposed with the slightest hint of a supernatural element. Eyes Of The Spider really is all over the place. Although tonally different, Eyes Of The Spider does manage to be a good companion piece to Serpent’s Path if only because of the juxtaposition it creates between to the two movies.
I’ve purposefully withheld a key piece of information from you, dear reader. For that I apologize; but I feel it was necessary to really hammer home why, despite their low budget and tonal differences, Serpent’s Path and Eyes Of The Spider compliment each other as a double bill and that’e because these movies exist as pure cinematic experiment. Kurosawa received an offer to make two films in the span of just two weeks, using the same cast and within the confines of the low budget I’ve already mentioned. It’s interesting to see a film maker be given the opportunity to play with convention and theme like this: revenge pieces set within a gangster background. It harkens back to the idea that if you give 10 different writers the same ideas, you would receive 10 different novels/screenplays/plays back in return.
I’m all for cinematic tropes and conventions being explored, utilized and/or disregarded in the way that Kurosawa has done and, if nothing else, this double bill is a great example of a creator of art flexing himself within his, seemingly, preferred genre. One is better than the other, but both exist out of pure experiment; juxtaposing the two is the point and, more to the point: the fun, of it all.
Steve Russell // @stevetendo
Serpents's Path/Eyes Of The Spider is available now, courtesy of Third