“Underseen” is a new, ongoing series where I highlight exceptional titles that have gone unfairly overlooked or underseen.
Serpent’s Path is one half of a two-part project which followed Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s international sensation, the frightening and strange horror detective story Cure (1997). Having been offered a small budget to make two films, director Kurosawa and writer Hiroshi Takahashi each hastily wrote scripts, versions of the same basic premise: a father seeks vengeance for the abduction and murder of his daughter. Takahashi, writer of Ringu (1998), penned Serpent’s Path, and Kurosawa wrote its ostensible remake, the reinterpreted and tonally very different Eyes of the Spider (1998). With the same cast and crew, and only a month for production, Kurosawa directed both films, shooting each back to back.
In Serpent’s Path, the darker of the two scripts, revenge is a protracted and murky exercise in extralegal detective work, moral introspection, challenged trust, uneasy alliances, and existential dread. When the film opens, bereaved father and former Yakuza Miyashita (Teruyuki Kagawa) and stoic schoolteacher Nijima (frequent Kurosawa collaborator Sho Aikawa) shackle a kidnapped low-level Yakuza to the wall of an isolated and abandoned warehouse. They suspect their prisoner is the murderer they’ve been looking for, but when they interrogate him he refuses to confess. Instead, he begins giving names. Miyashita can barely contain his rage and despair, but Nijima, whose relationship to the situation is never entirely made clear, attempts to direct the situation with a cool head and a dispassionate distance.
In no time, our vengeance-seeking pair have kidnapped another suspect, and, soon after, another. But with Yakuza members going steadily missing and Miyashita and Nijima’s alliance strained by uncertainty and emotional instability, an unraveling slowly enacts itself. Vengeance, which seemed so close at hand, begins to spiral and slip away, draining into the empty corridors of the decaying warehouse where now three men, kidnapped, tortured and chained to a wall, none of them innocent but maybe none of them guilty, sit waiting, or else plotting their own vengeance.
Kurosawa’s genre trappings betray his larger philosophical abstractions. The landscapes, barren and desolate, and methods of filming, long takes and simple set-ups, ingeniously adapted for his low budget and limited production schedule, impress upon the viewer a desiccated humanity. The warehouse becomes a sort of labyrinth containing the uncontrollable rage of vengeance, from which only annihilation and self-destruction can result. As Kurosawa’s thriller unfolds, and the imprisoned suspects plead for their innocence, the architects of the vengeance scheme become implicated by their own blood lust. When the schoolteacher Nijama is asked why he’s helping the increasingly unstable Miyashita, he casually replies “I always wanted to try something like this.”
Kurosawa’s film concludes in a tense, operatic pursuit and showdown through the gutted rooms of Miyashita and Nijima’s warehouse hideout and makeshift prison. If the mystery of the scripted plot is made clear, it only reveals an even more mysterious darkness at the center of its characters: who are we and what are we capable of? The dilapidated landscapes of a rapidly technologically changing society make up the backdrop of a human drama, cathode televisions stacked together, the white noise of the screen, a disquieting broken signal, an empty street. The preoccupations of much of Kurosawa’s most celebrated work, especially Pulse (2001), Charisma (1999), and Cure (1997) — the loneliness of man, the strangeness of a connected/disconnected society, and an overwhelming ennui — are well represented here, satisfyingly strained through the tropes of the Yakuza picture and the revenge story.
Only recently made available on a double-feature home video release by UK-based distributor Third Window Films, Serpent’s Path is just beginning to be seen in the United States. With renewed interest in Kurosawa’s filmography following a stint of successful international festival runs of more recent efforts (Daguerrotype, Creepy), it’s likely that Serpent’s Path and its companion film will soon be made more available and region-free; hopefully, along with it will come a just reappraisal of its importance in Kurosawa’s filmography and in the crime genre internationally.
Kurosawa’s 2001 techno-horror masterpiece Pulse played at IU Cinema on 35mm back in 2011 as part of the continuing East Asian Film Series. I also wrote about Pulse last year for the October “Monthly Movie Round-Up,” celebrating a new restoration and its Blu-ray debut on Arrow Video.
Nathaniel Sexton enjoys the films of Andrzej Żuławski, Alex Ross Perry, and Jerry Lewis. He reads comic books, plays pinball, prefers his movies sad or slow, and volunteers at a video rental store. He likes to travel west by car but always misses movies when living out of a tent.