Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974) by Toshiya Fujita

Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji) returns in this sequel to the blood-spattered revenge drama “Lady Snowblood”. The infamous assassin is arrested after her terrifying killing spree and sentenced to death. She is given a choice by Seishiro Kikuki (Shin Kishida), head of the secret police: to die or to help him kill an anarchist by the name of  Ransui Tokunaga (Juzo Itami), after retrieving something from his house. Yuki moves in as a maid with Tokunaga and his wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), and soon comes to trust them. She learns that the object she is to obtain is evidence that threatens to topple the government. She decides to help Tokunaga and later a rebel bend led by his brother Shusuke (Yoshio Harada).

The film has a very different feel to the first film. As that film ended with Yuki achieving her own personal vendetta, it was clear things needed to move in another direction. This film is far more of a political thriller, and Yuki, while important to the plot, is often not the focus of the action. The film opens with the temple of Priest Dokai in a state of disrepair, festooned with cobwebs. Dokai is dead and we see Yuki mourning at his grave beside that of her mother. This continues the theme of generational change, suggesting a clean break with the past as Japan moves towards a new era. The backdrop to this film is the end of the Russo-Japanese war, and the poverty caused by rampant inflation. The citizens are living in slums while the secret police attempt to maintain the current order by putting down resistance movements to the government.

Along with a darker and more politically conscious tone, the film also does away with the chaptered divisions of the first and most of the flashbacks. The film is told in a more traditional style and there is more time spent with certain characters, including Yuki. Meiko Kaji is given a more nuanced role, dealing with loss and gaining more allies in the form of Ransui and Shusuke. There is also an interesting subplot about these brothers’ own relationship. The action sequences will not disappoint fans of the first movie, in particular scenes where Yuki faces off against multiple opponents, giving Kaji chance to show her swordsmanship. There are the gory deaths one might expect, as well as some genuinely chilling scenes of torture. Toshiya Fujita’s direction seems to take a cue from the story, with a more contemplative tone. While still being a fast-paced action story, the direction is more considered, moving away from the manga influences of the first towards a more cinematic style, and the set-pieces build on what was seen in the original.

The story itself is interesting, perhaps even more so than the first, in tackling political issues and social themes. It looks at a period of Japanese history following the military campaigns in Manchuria, with the Japanese people having lost that wide-eyed innocence about Imperialism and now living in the aftermath of deprivation while the government enjoy the spoils. The secret police are portrayed as villainous, while the anarchist is an entirely sympathetic character. This bold political statement fits the revenge plot style recognizable from the first film, offering extreme yet believable antagonists. The sets of the  lower quarters are fantastic and give a real sense of the destitution that was commonplace. This change in focus, from Yuki’s personal journey to a more socially conscious theme, gives “Love Song of Vengeance” a very different feel to the first “Lady Snowblood”. A superb sequel that builds on the character and offers a completely fresh story, albeit with the familiar elements of swordplay and skulduggery that made the first such fun to watch.

Lady Snowblood (1973) by Toshiya Fujita

On a snowy night in a woman’s jail a young mother, Sayo (Miyoko Akaza) gives birth to an girl surrounded by her fellow inmates. We learn that this woman was attacked by a ruthless gang who murdered her husband and young son and raped her. She successfully tracked down and killed the first of them, but was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. After giving birth to Yuki, she tells the women around her that her daughter is fated to become her avenger. Yuki is trained by Priest Dokai (Ko Nishimura) in martial arts, becoming adept with the sword, and all the while having only revenge on her mind. Twenty years later, Yuki (Meiko Kaji), sets off to find the others who wronged her mother.

Based on the manga by Kazuo Koike (Lone Wolf and Cub) with a screenplay by Norio Osada, director Toshiya Fujita creates an intense thriller packed with violent action. The story is chaptered, a reflection of its manga origins, and this creates a great forward momentum as Yuki tackles each challenge on her road to revenge. It also utilises an achronological approach to storytelling, using flashbacks or asides to paint a full picture of what happened, building up the legend of ‘Shurayuki-hime’ little by little. There are also a number of unexpected twists to the tale, as Yuki finds the path to vengeance is far from simple. Later in the film Yuki meets an author (Toshio Kurosawa) who writes and publishes her story, which creates an interesting dynamic as it contrasts this novelisation with the ‘true story’ we are watching, intensifying the impact of Yuki’s actions.

The film does not shy away from scenes of bloodshed as Yuki cuts her way through various assailants and the targets of her revenge. Meiko Kaji excels in the action sequences. The choreography is rarely extravagant, but is sharp and brutal, further heightening the sense of how deadly an assassin she has become. The training montages of Yuki as a child are interspersed with the story of her hunt for those who wronged her mother, thus layering the portrayal of the character as we glean more about her upbringing and what set her on this destructive path. The cinematography and editing are engaging, not only in the way that the film is paced, through chaptering and flashbacks, but in the scenes themselves, with cuts to extreme close-ups, or zoom outs in the case of one death helping to draw out the emotional resonance of the scenes. There is also a sunset motif that is well utilised, the idea of the setting sun perhaps representative of the death that Yuki brings in her wake, or her own slow decent into hell. Other elements that work well, and lend a manga style to the film, are the use of on screen captions for characters and the use of illustrated segments for historical references.

Meiko Kaji gives an amazing performance, stern and unforgiving. Kaji also sang the iconic theme song ‘Shura no Hana’, that bookends the film. The main villains, Banzo Takemura (Noboru Nakaya), Okono Kitahama (Sanae Nakahara) and Gishiro Tsukamoto (Eiji Okada) are all incredibly unlikeable, but each is given their own personality. Takemura seems genuinely ashamed and regretful of his crimes; Okono has now become a gang leader and shows no remorse; and Tsukamoto has moved on completely, almost dismissive of his former actions. It is these characterisations that make “Lady Snowblood” more than a simple action film. While the central plot is straightforward, it is bolstered by themes of struggle and poverty, of the introduction of European values into the country, all of which help create a vivid world.

“Lady Snowblood” takes place at the beginning of the Meiji Era, as we are told in narration. European ‘civility’ is clashing with the brutality of the former period; a theme brought into sharp focus in the final scenes of the film that take place at a ball with international visitors. Yuki stands out starkly in her kimono, in contrast to the guests in suits and ballgowns. There is also discussion of the notion of revenge, what it means and whether it can ever assuage the anger of someone who has been wronged. Yuki spends her entire life in this quest and the film asks poignantly towards the end what has become of her as a person, having devoted her entire existence to seeking vengeance.

Gantz: Perfect Answer (2011) by Shinsuke Sato

Following on from the first Gantz film, we pick up the story of Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) as he continues fighting aliens, trying to collect enough points to resurrect his friend Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama. This film adds more mystery to the central plot, with a girl carrying a small Gantz-like orb that tells her to kill various people (referring to them as keys), a group of black-suited men attempting to track down Gantz, and a detective also attempting to unravel the secrets of the various incidents occurring around the city.

If you enjoyed the first Gantz movie, this one offers more of the same. The new additions to the story are good for the most part, further pulling the rug from under your feet if you thought you had a handle on what was happening in the first movie. There are some fantastic action sequences here too, with long fight scenes on a train and in the city streets taking up a large chunk of the run-time. I felt that these suffered from being a little over-long, and not having the same sense of fun or originality as the first film (an onion alien is a much funnier and unique concept than men in black suits). We see a little more of Kurono and his girlfriend Tae Kojima here, and also learn more about Kato. I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with the ending to this film. It brings things to a conclusion, but in a way that still leaves many things unanswered.

This film plays more on the interpersonal relationships of the protagonists, there are some great moments of sacrifice, team-work, and the ending is a nice way to round off the series with the idea that even ordinary people can achieve extra-ordinary things if they try. A fun “part two” to the first film, and I would definitely recommend it as an action packed science fiction film with a great sense of style.

Gantz (2010) by Shinsuke Sato

On his way to a job interview university student Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) sees an old school friend, Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama), attempting to rescue a man who has fallen onto the subway tracks. After attempting to pull his friend back up onto the platform the two of them are hit by a train and killed, but instead of everything going dark, they wake up in a bright apartment room with a view of Tokyo Tower. There are several other people in the room, as well as a mysterious black orb. The orb, known as Gantz, tells them that they are dead, and their lives are now his to command. He orders them on various missions to kill aliens, handing out weapons and suits that give them super-human strength and speed. Kurono and Kato, alongside a girl named Kishimoto (Natsuna), and the others who have found themselves in the room are sent to various locations to destroy the aliens, and awarded points for their performances. Prizes are awarded for certain amounts of points, the most sought after being the chance to return to life.

Based on the popular manga by Hiroya Oku, “Gantz” is a great example of a beautifully simple mystery. Everything that is happening is made explicit, but without ever really explaining why it is happening. The central conceit, that the protagonists are dead already, leads to a surprising amount of tension, as you root for them to be returned to their lives, or discover what is going on with Gantz and the room. Excellent costume design and special effects make this an enjoyable watch and the action scenes are highly entertaining spectacles. The main criticisms I would have of the film is that it leaves a lot for the audience to piece together on very little information. Either you will learn to accept that what is going on is intended to be a fun, enjoyable action film, with an inexplicable plot; or it will seem as though the writer didn’t know how to tie up this fantastic mystery he had set up. There are huge amounts of gore and violence in the film, with bodies exploding, and deaths aplenty. The film is the first of two-parts, so you could see this more as a set-up explaining the basics of the world, and get you hooked into the bizarre world of Gantz.

There are some interesting ideas at play here. The first time you see the players transported to the Gantz room, it is intriguing enough to carry almost the entire film, as you keep watching to find out how they explain such an odd occurrence. The notion that there are hidden aliens, and the constant niggling suspicions around who or what the aliens are, whether the players are really alive or dead, are engaging. One of the most interesting ideas presented, though not particularly dwelt upon, is the notion that perhaps the aliens are not the bad guys after all, and the players are being tricked into killing innocent beings. Overall an enjoyable watch, though it spends more time on the action scenes and less on the philosophy or morality of what’s happening.

Roujin Z (1991) by Hiroyuki Katakubo

Haruko is a student nurse working as a carer for the elderly, bed-bound and incontinent Takazawa. The government department in charge of looking after the aged members of society has developed a new machine, the Z-001, which it promises will revolutionise the care profession. The machine is a giant bed that includes television, telephone, games, and will wash, feed and clean the patient. It even has a special vacuum for dealing with toileting. The government remove Takazawa from his home and place him inside the prototype machine to test and promote its effectiveness. Haruko sets out with her friends to rescue Takazawa from the government’s clutches. However, things soon spiral out of control when the machine develops unknown capabilities.

“Roujin Z” was written by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and shows many similarities with the director’s other works. This includes concepts of transhumanism, human-machine interfacing, and corrupt government departments that do not have the citizens best interests at heart. Director Hiroyuki Katakubo who worked with Otomo on Akira does a great job with the mix of tones in “Roujin Z”. The film leans heavily on the comedy and jokes, particularly early on, which helps get the audience onboard with the somewhat out-there premise. There is also a lot of action and the breakneck pace leaves little time for reflection. Once the plot kicks into gear there is barely time to consider as it moves from one action sequence to another, with helicopter chases and robot fights. Haruko is a sympathetic protagonist, the personification of the kindness and hardwork of the medical profession. The artwork and style includes some excellent backgrounds, packed with details and the robots are well-designed, stretching the concept of a sentient robotic bed to its limits.

This film is packed with ideas about the future of the medical profession, the problems associated with technological progress, the corruption inherent in corporations and the military. Haruko’s job is threatened by the emergence of this new technology, and the film raises concerns about what society loses by relying heavily on computers or robots, positing that such progress may lead to a diminishment of compassion and human contact. The treatment of the elderly is at the heart of the drama. Although there is comedy to be gained from Takazawa being tossed around by the robot, the complete lack of care shown to him by the head of the department for welfare shows a dark side to how society sidelines their elderly. There are more far reaching concepts such as how humanity is increasingly becoming tied up with technology. Takazawa becomes able to converse through the machine and likewise people are able to hack into this system. An excellent science-fiction film that touches on many important ideas concerning the future of humanity, with an action-packed script and lots of humour.