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.

An Actor’s Revenge (1963) by Kon Ichikawa

Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) is a female impersonator working at a travelling theatre company. During a performance in Edo she finds a small group in the audience who were responsible for her parents’ tragic deaths. These are Lord Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), Kawaguchiya (Saburo Date) and Hiromiya (Eijiro Yanagi). Yukinojo is set on a course of revenge against this trio, though simply killing them will not suffice; he wishes to see them suffer madness before facing their ultimate fate. A side-story involves a thief, Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) and her accomplices, who get caught up in Yukinojo’s quest for retribution.

“An Actor’s Revenge” sets out its stall in the opening moments as Yukinojo fixes his eyes on his victims. What appears at first to be a simple revenge story, soon turns into a careful exploration of what this quest for vengeance means for Yukinojo and the psychology of revenge. At first cold and sly, we see Yukinojo become genuinely upset as she realises that she is in part destroying herself through her actions. She is consumed by her desire to see them punished and with each life she takes she knows she will become less herself and more a killer. The idea of actors, roles, masks and false identities, plays well against this backdrop. It set up the twisted tale quite nicely with the notion that people may not be what they seem. The audience come to realise that it is not only Yukinojo who is disguising a secret, but almost every character has a hidden life they are concealing from the world. Sexual politics, surprisingly perhaps, does not play a major role in the story, although Yukinojo’s appearance or transformation is mentioned several times, often in a derogatory way. It is interesting to contrast his story with that of Ohatsu, as the two could be considered to have swapped genders in terms of more traditional roles. Ohatsu is very much a woman in a man’s world, taking on their values and outdoing them in callousness, while Yukinojo embodies feminine wiles and compassion for her victims. A stunning film to look at with exceptional performances, a thrillingly dark revenge story with a peculiar hero, and a fantastic score.

From the opening shots of a Kabuki performance, the film is beautifully shot, and continues this theatrical aesthetic with actors’ careful movements, vibrant colours, and excellent use of framing. This gives “An Actor’s Revenge” a stylish look and blurs the line to some extent between the life on stage and reality. The screenplay by Natto Wada, shows a flair for dialogue, with conversations driving the majority of the action. It captures a range of voices and knows exactly when to withhold certain information (such as the precise details of Yukinojo’s father’s death) for maximum impact later on. Yukinojo’s own story has all the elements of a great drama, a tragedy spurring our hero to revenge, feelings of guilt or procrastination over what he must do, and a cast of colourful characters, both comedic and sinister to enliven the story. Kazuo Hasegawa’s performance as Yukinojo is exceptional as he undergoes several transformations and seems in genuine moral distress over his course of action. Hasegawa also plays one of the thieves, Yamitaro, a duel role that is commented on by the characters for their likeness to one another. Fujiko Yamamoto gives a thrilling turn as the cool and calculating Ohatsu, a woman totally in charge of her less capable followers. The orchestral score by Tamekichi Mochizuki and Masao Yagi, with piano, strings and harp, is the perfect counterpart to the sumptuous cinematography. There are a number of leitmotifs used throughout for certain moments or characters, and the music is carefully weighted to lend impact where required.