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.

Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (1992)

The staff at a high-class hotel have a problem. The Yakuza are causing trouble, being abusive to staff, refusing to pay their bills, and other antisocial behaviour. With the manager (Akira Takarada) at a loss he recruits an accountant, Suzuki (Yasuo Daichi) to lead operations to rid the hotel of these people, along with his assistant Wakasugi (Takehiro Murata). The two prove to be incompetent, lacking the strength and wit to out-fox the gangsters. They decide to bring in criminal lawyer, Mahiru Inoue (Nobuko Miyamoto), who specialises in Yakuza-civilian relations. The film is essentially a farce with some great scenes showing the various tricks of the Yakuza swindling people out of their money. Later in the film things take a dark turn when the manager of the hotel is framed for a sexual assault on a minor. Having finally gone too far, the hotel double down on their efforts to get rid of the Yakuza once and for all.

Director Juzo Itami faced a backlash from the Yakuza following the release of the film, being assaulted by gangs who disliked their portrayal in the movie. There are also those who believe Itami’s death to be suspicious and linked to these groups. The film is a fantastic crime-comedy film that has surprisingly dark undercurrents. Not only are the Yakuza shown to be ridiculous, but also violent thugs that should not be respected in Japanese society. The direction is solid and Itami clearly has a good sense of comic timing and framing set-pieces. The script also moves at a great pace and is well-structured into various acts, becoming acquainted with the problematic Yakuza and our hapless heroes, then the secondary plot involving the manager, and finally their showdown with the gangsters. The comic soundtrack by Toshiyuki Honda is very much of its time, but in keeping with the film’s light-hearted tone. The great achievement of the film is that it manages to discuss a serious societal problem with humour without shying away from the darker elements.

The Yakuza are a staple of Japanese cinema, from Kinji Fukasaku’s “Yakuza Papers” series, to Takashi Miike’s “Black Society Trilogy” and Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage”. This film’s intention was to puncture the mystique around these groups and show them as bullies and criminals. There is nothing honourable about the characters in the film and they lack the aura of cool that has been established by many films. Instead they are loud, lazy and obnoxious, making their money by taking advantage of the good nature of those around them. A great film with some hilarious moments and a serious message underpinning the comedy.