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.

Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa

Escaping from a downpour, a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) takes shelter at Rashomon gate, where he meets a wood-cutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) who are discussing a recent trial they have witnessed. The wood-cutter tells the man that as he was walking through the forest a few days before, he came across a dead samurai. The priest had earlier seen the samurai (Masayuki Mori) leading his wife (Machiko Kyo) on a horse in that direction. Later a thief Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) was caught with the weapons from the samurai. Tajomaru is taken to trial and tells his version of events, claiming that he did kill the samurai. They also hear the story of the wife of the samurai, which is different in points to that of Tajomaru. We also get two different version of events, with no hints as to which is correct, and all seeming to take the blame for the death of the samurai.

Based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film has an interesting structure, one that would later influence many other works. Instead of being a straightforward narrative, we are instead presented, through flashbacks, with several versions of the same event, and asked to choose which one we believe or trust. This makes the film engaging, especially when you reach the third and fourth versions, as you attempt to puzzle out why they would be lying about certain things, whether you can trust the witnesses, and what the true circumstances of the murder were. Unlike other historical films, this is focussed heavily on the telling of stories, and dialogue between the major players, rather than action sequences. All the actors do a great job, particularly the three involved in the crime, as they act out the various interpretations of the scenes. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is fantastic, with the use of static cameras during the trial scenes putting you in the role of an unbiased judge as each story is told, and use of framing and movement in the flashback sequences showing you exactly what you need to see. Both the story and direction work together to create a compelling narrative, that keeps you wanting to learn more about what really happened.

The film asks some difficult questions about the nature of truth and reality, and also includes some very dark themes of murder and rape, although never graphic, and nasty characters. At the beginning of the film we see the crumbling Rashomon gate amidst a rainstorm, which acts as a perfect visual metaphor for the chaotic reality of life, and the forces of nature that act to destroy what civilisation attempts to construct. The lack of order symbolised by the gates destruction is explained as the characters tear firewood from the building, further emphasizing the necessary selfishness of humanity). A deserved classic, this film is a must watch for fans of cinema, as it inspired the way many future stories were told.

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.

Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (1955) by Tomu Uchida

Genpachi (Chiezo Kataoka) and Genta (Daisuke Kato) are retainers to samurai Sakawa Kojuro (Teruo Shimada), on their way to Edo. Along the road they meet various fellow travellers. A young boy interested in becoming a spear-carrier like Genpachi, a shamisen player (Chizuru Kitagawa) and her daughter, a policeman on the trail of a thief, among others. The fates of everyone on the road become intertwined with both humorous and tragic results.

“Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji” is directed by Tomu Uchida from a script by Shintaro Mimura and Fuji Yahiro. It is an interesting story with both comedic elements and more serious social themes explored through the various characters. The humour may be a little outdated and slapstick but the two servants Genpachi and Genta are likeable and relatable enough, carrying the burden of supporting their master on his journey. In the later half of the film the tone shifts and is much more downbeat and pessimistic. The cinematography is well-done and in particular the staging and framing of every shot shows a masterful understanding of technique, utilising theatrical staging with more modern techniques such as overhead shots.

The film has a strong social message regarding the class system that is as strikingly relevant today as it was at the time of release, and even during the period when the film is set. Our attention is drawn early to the various professions of the travellers on the road, in particular the difference between the status of Genpachi and Genta and their master Kojuro. The turning point of the film comes when Kojuro receives the praise for the actions of Genpachi and we realise that respect is something that is inherited rather than earned. The film augments this central theme with the characters of the mother whose daughter is to be sold into prostitution. Also, with the arrogance of the samurai whom Kojuro meets later in the film. It is a passionate appeal that a person’s worth not be judged by their social standing, but by their actions. At the end of the film, Genpachi warns the boy not to become a spear-carrier. This may be a plea to the audience that they should never be bound by the disputes of others, or a more pessimistic acknowledgement of an unavoidable fate. One of the characters earlier in the film makes reference to the fact they everyone has a master, “But who is the lord’s master?” he asks. A deity? Are we doomed from birth to walk a particular path. And does it always end in violence?

Killing (2018)

Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a samurai boarding in a village of rural farmers. He has a relationship with one of the women in the village, Yu (Yu Aoi), and spars with her brother Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda) daily. Their peaceful existence is interrupted by the appearance of another samurai, Jirozaemon Sawamura (Shinya Tsukamoto), whom they witness defeating another man in a duel. Sawamura conscripts the Mokunoshin and Ichisuke to join him on a trip to Edo and Kyoto, which they agree with, Mokunoshin reluctantly and Ichisuke happily. Sadly, their plans are disrupted by the appearance of a group of ronin whom the villagers fear are there to rob them. Events soon turn violent and Tsuzuki is caught up in a world of death that he had avoided until then.

Written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, “Killing” is on the surface a simple samurai story, though with a dark subtext. The sets and costume design are perfectly evocative of the period and the score by Chu Ishikawa compliments the action perfectly with drums and traditional instrumentation. Where the film strays from the well-trodden path of other samurai dramas is in its arthouse aesthetic. The story is pared back to its essentials, that is to say it is about the taking of life and what this means for the person who does it. The sword-fighting and sparring sequences are well-choreographed and have a fluidity and intensity that makes them a joy to watch. When real swords are used, the film does not shy away from blood spatter and some wince-inducing injuries. There is also humour, often darkly comic, employed to great effect. Tsukamoto is a director with a unique style and will often use a conventional idea in an unusual way. One example is in a scene between Tsuzuki and Yu, that is both tender and erotic without being explicit. It also, as with many other scenes, manages to capture wordlessly yet perfectly exactly what the relationship is between the characters. Dialogue is often sparse with the performances speaking for themselves and the cast do an excellent job with their roles. Ikematsu is brooding and troubled with the path he is set on; Yu Aoi is a tough foil for him, the emotional mirror to the seemingly cold samurai characters. Tsukamoto himself is suitably intimidating as the deadly swordsman, almost personifying death itself. Certain stylistic flourishes, such as darkening the camera, are used sparingly but to great effect throughout. The film’s simplicity may not appeal to everyone, but it allows the themes room to breathe and allows the audience to experience the emotional turmoil of the characters without the need to follow excessive characters or subplots.

As the title suggests, this is a film about killing. Tsuzuki is a man who shies away from violence. His life in the village, despite daily training, is an easy one and he appears comfortable. Sawamura’s appearance is almost like a dark spirit descending on the villagers. The notion of a spirit becomes more apparent at the very end of the film as an unseen force seems to be drifting through the forest searching for its next victim. Sawamura tells Tsuzuki that to not use his sword makes it meaningless. He exists to kill. In this way Sawamura represents the very evil of murder itself, appearing in this rural idyll and setting of a catastrophic chain of events. “Killing” also discusses the theme of revenge, whether it is ever justified and whether a cycle of revenge can ever be broken. ‘Kill or be killed’ is an oft used phrase, but this film exposes the horror of the sentiment in recognizing that there is no good option. Of course, most would consider killing to be preferable, but that leads to a loss of self that is almost as devastating as being killed. “Killing” examines this moral conundrum in a way that leaves a lasting impression, building to a darkly satisfying climax. The film is a philosophical take on the popular samurai genre that dissects what it means to kill and whether killing strips us of our humanity.