Back in 1998, PULSE director Kiyoshi Kurosawa – no relation to Akira - was set a challenge by his producer: shoot two films, with the same cast, in two weeks. Stepping up to the plate, Kurosawa had little preparation time and even less in the way of budget.

The end result was these two gangster films, which at first glance do seem extremely similar.

SERPENT’S PATH (a.k.a. HEBI NO MICHI) begins with former low-level Yakuza Miyashita (Teruyuki Kagawa) kidnapping a fellow gangster from his own home.

He drives him to a remote, disused warehouse, where his pal – mild-mannered maths teacher Nijima (Sho Aikawa) - is waiting and ready to assist. Together they bind the mobster up next to a radiator and show him a video recording of Miyashita’s daughter. It transpires the girl was sexually assaulted and murdered a short while ago.

The villain protests his innocence and pins the crime on a gang rival. It’s not long before Nijima and Miyashita have grabbed said suspect from the local golf course, and he’s also sitting chained to a pipe in the warehouse.

Despite Miyashita’s torture techniques, neither man is prepared to own up to his daughter’s murder. Instead, they hatch a plan to implicate a third rogue. Suddenly, Miyashita has three hostages and no idea which one is the killer.

Urgently shot on handheld 35mm camera and utilising a lot of natural light, SERPENT’S PATH is certainly raw in look and feel. And yet, the director is capable of bringing out an earthy stylishness to proceedings through carefully considered compositions, occasional flashbacks and a taut, often blackly humorous script.

Each member of the small cast is excellent; Aikawa’s cool offering a nice counterbalance to Kagawa’s convincing edginess.

The film looks a little on the cheap side at times but, by and large, it’s a tough, successfully economic ride with precious little in the way of flab. The central theme of revenge is handled thought-provokingly (check out the twist ending) while never detracting from the action. Overall, it's a constantly watchable slice entertainment which doubles up as a formidable flexing of Kurosawa's subtly intellectual persuasion.

EYES OF THE SPIDER (a.k.a. KUMO NO HITOMI) treads very similar ground, at least initially.

In it, Nijima (Aikawa again) is a professional man who tracks down the thug that raped and killed his 8-year-old daughter. Despite, once again, the hostage insisting on his innocence, Nijima tortures him - before shooting him several times and burying him in a shallow grave.

Up until this point Nijima has been obsessed with keeping the spirit of his daughter alive: her bedroom remains fully furnished, his wife has pleaded with him to move on etc. But once revenge has been served, Nijima grows more despondent - his life seems emptier than ever.

This leads to Nijima pretty much giving up on the life he led and casually following an old friend into a pattern of assassinating supposedly deserving targets. The brutal murders that he commits lend Nijima a vague sense of purpose for some time, but then a local Yakuza boss becomes aware of his talents and wants to put them to ill use...

Less linear and more downbeat than SERPENT'S PATH, SPIDER is also a little more ragged around its edges. It's still a fascinating film, with finely nuanced performances and a couple of memorably disturbing sequences (the girl getting rocks thrown at her was a particularly cruel moment, I felt)

There's another twist in store with SPIDER, but this one is more profound in terms of spelling out the emptiness of revenge. It's a sobering finale to three hours of vengeance-fuelled action, all of which is tempered by Kurosawa's playfully subversive storytelling.

Unpredictable, likeable and filled with rich thematic detail beyond their surface pulp set-pieces, this double-bill is some feat, considering the conditions under which it was produced.

Both films now come to UK DVD courtesy of Third Window Films. Each one is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and given the benefit of 16x9 enhancement.

In both cases, colours are fair and detail is reasonable, but the films exhibit a slightly watered-out look. These aren’t top-drawer presentations, but I imagine it’s the best we can expect these films to look. I doubt even giving each film its own disc – they’re both squeezed onto a single DVD here – would’ve made much difference.

Japanese 2.0 audio is consistent and reliable throughout both features. Optional English subtitles can only be enabled/disabled via the main menu.

Speaking of which, the main menu is a static affair which leads into similarly static scene-selection menus for each film (offering 14 chapters apiece).

The only bonus features are original trailers for each film.

EYES OF THE SPIDER and especially SERPENT’S PATH are interesting insights into the early career of the man who went on to direct critically acclaimed fare such as PULSE, CURE and TOKYO SONATA. Violent morality fables laced with mordant humour and oft-times chilling subversions of genre expectancies, they continue to impress to this day.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Third Window Films
Region 2 PAL
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review