Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a psychological director with a penchant for the darker side of life. "Serpent's Path" and "Eyes of the Spider" was something of a student film project for the B-movie veteran at the time: set the task to write and shoot two films on a small budget over the course of a month. Both films start with the premise of a father seeking revenge for the murder of his young daughter and, featuring similar cast members, may prove difficult to differentiate on recall. And certainly, the two films when considered together as a project are greater than the sum of their parts.
Penned by "Ring" screenplay writer Hiroshi Takahashi, "Serpent's Path" starts with the meeting of Nijima (Sho Aikawa) and Miyashita (Teruyuki Kagawa). Miyashita is an agitated man seeking revenge for his daughter's death, likely to get himself killed. Nijima, however, is much more cool, calm and calculated, unsurprising as he works as a night school teacher for some form of mechanical mathematics.
Working together, they gradually kidnap the various people believed to be involved in the crime, locking them up in a disused factory. Nijima keeps himself at a distance - letting Miyashita do what he believes necessary to exact his revenge - having already calculated his part in all this long ago.
"Eyes of the Spider" throws us straight into the action, with Nijima (Aikawa again) having captured the man he believes killed his daughter (Susumu Terajima) starts a period of interrogation and torture. But this settled, he returns to his day job and marriage with a detachment. In something of a funk, he bumps into an old schoolmate, Iwamatsu (Duncan), who invites him to join his company.
Asked to stamp meaningless paperwork in an empty office all day, it is clear that Iwamatsu's company is a front for more dangerous and illegal work. Nijima is brought in, and with his new-found coldness, takes it on. But Iwamatsu reveals that he has something on Nijima's past; a mistake now Nijima isn't afraid to take on anybody.
As low-budget affairs, both films are pretty sparse in terms of generating much atmosphere. There is little in the way of editing, soundtrack or special effects, making these very stripped-down, low-key works. Shot back-to-back in fairly non-descript locations, having not watched both for a number of years, I did struggle to recall which Nijima I remember from each story.
The biggest point of differentiation are two settings for some of the more memorable scenes. In "Serpent's Path", Nijima and Miyashita commit a bungled kidnapping of Otsugi (Yurei Yanagi) on a golf course which has an intentionally comic air and reflects the protagonists' desire, but their lack of career criminal status. "Eyes of the Spider" regularly returns to a quarry where Nijima meets elder Hinuma (Shun Sugata) to discover his findings, but also serves as the scene for concluding shoot-outs.
One problem for both films is that with a small budget and short time for making, both lack much in the way of genuine story and character development. The story starting points are both simplistic in a man's search for revenge following the death of his daughter. But in both, Aikawa's Nijima is something of an enigma with a career we get a brief glimpse into, but know nothing of the history of. Many of the characters in both are fairly interchangeable, which is nothing of a criticism of the actors involved, featuring much of Takeshi Kitano's Nineties crew, but constraints mean depth is not much of a possibility. This is why this has a student film project feel, with more of a get-it-done approach, than considering any real purpose to make these films.
On re-watching, it is clear that one film is superior to the other. With its more established writer in "Ring" screenwriter Takahashi, "Serpent's Path" has more of a structure, development and a clever twist than the more TV movie-esque "Eyes of the Spider" and is a more all-round tighter and smarter film.
But considered together, this is a little under three hours' worth of entertainment showing how the same starting premise can go in different ways and the idea of this as a filmmaking project rather than two films in isolation makes it a more enjoyable and interesting viewing. Both films, therefore, should be considered as a pair and watched as such as a double-bill.
Elements of both combined would make this into a stronger film altogether. The opening scene to "Eyes of the Spider" throws us straight into the action, with the opening credits liberally added over the scene as it plays out, which serves as an absorbing starting point. The conclusion of "Serpent's Path" is well-rounded and brings us back to its start, showing Nijima as the clever master of calculations he is suggested to be.
As a film experiment, this is fun and entertaining. Neither says a huge amount alone and would come across as just another V-cinema genre film, reflective of much of Kurosawa's earlier career. But packaged together, as Third Window Films' release does, these are two films that work well together.