Saturday, 8 May 2010

Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (Shurayukihime: Urami Renga, 1974)

A cobbled-together sequel to Toshiya Fujita’s classic is hampered by a storyline that suggests mastermind Kazuo Koike’s playbook was exhausted for ideas for how to extend his most interesting creation’s life beyond the cycle of revenge played out in the first film. Given that Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972), the second film in Koike’s other well-known franchise, had been the best, the second outing for his decent but unyielding femme of fury might have, like that film, slipped the limits of melodrama and danced through a realm of sadistic revelry. Instead, Love Song of Vengeance seems to merely graft Lady Snowblood herself, Yuki Kashima, played again by Meiko Kaji, onto a tale to which she is functionally peripheral. Slower and less original and provocative than the first film, and lacking its pathological atmosphere of gender/generational skirmish and meta-textual invention, the sequel is however compelling for being even more relentlessly bleak and cynical than its predecessor.

At the outset, over ten years after the events of the first film, Yuki is living as a fugitive, hunted inexorably by both yakuza thugs and government agents: in the opening sequence, visiting the graves of her former mentor Priest Dôkai and her mother, is set upon by assassins, and, in a dazzling long tracking shot, she calmly walks out of the graveyard slashing and slicing each assailant as he throws himself at her. The drive of revenge has given way to mere endurance. She pauses with bewilderment to watch soldiers marching off to war with Russia, which, as one of Fujita’s inventive montages explains, was a victory that cost the lives of 375,000 Japanese soldiers, the surviving remnants of which, the narrative coldly suggests, often came back to lives of poverty and degradation in having served the interests of a repressive, avaricious state.

Two years later, the war won, Yuki is nearly snared by police, but she escapes and spends a night cared for by a dour but kindly beachcomber (Yoshio Harada) she encounters camped on the seaside. The next morning, however, the police catch her as she washes the blood from her hands from the night’s skirmishes in the sea: Yuki begins to fight them off with her routine dauntlessness, but catching a glimpse of the handsome hobo and seeing the hopelessness of her lot, throws away her sword and lets them take her prisoner. Yuki is sentenced to death by hanging for 37 killings, but on the way to the gallows her carriage is snatched and the guards killed by men who prove to be themselves agents of the increasingly corrupt Meiji regime. The chief of the secret police, Kikui Seishiro (Shin Kishida), and his ministerial boss Kendo Terauchi (Tôru Abe), want to make use of Yuki’s skills: they have her pose as a maid and enter into the service of anarchist intellectual Ransui Tokunaga (Juzo Itami) and his sickly wife Aya (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), to try and locate a document he has hidden.

Ransui is canny, however, and he soon realises who he’s harbouring, and, rather than chase her off, he takes the risk of explaining his intentions to her. He knows his gal, for Yuki immediately comes over to his side, necessitating the villains’ efforts to stop them both using the document – a letter that can prove Seishiro and Terauchi conspired in judicial homicide of Ransui’s anarchist friends – to destroy them. Ransui is arrested, hideously tortured, and injected with bubonic plague before being dumped in the midst of the slums to spread fear and pestilence. Yuki takes the letter to his estranged brother, a desolate slum doctor, Shusuke, and he proves to have been the helpful man from the beach: devastated by the fact Aya, his wife, left him when he was at the war for his brother, he’s spurned them and life almost entirely, but he soon wakens to the call of action, like Yuki herself, as the officials’ campaign of repression grows unchecked.

The political theme, taking angry pot-shots at the WW2-era dictatorship’s use of biological warfare and scorched-earth domination, and greedy imperialist exploitation, although veiled in a more distant historical milieu, is palpably scurrilous. The sequel then extends the first film’s anti-establishment critique even further, suggesting a level of corruption and iniquity that no mere sword-wielding avenger can correct. The problem is that the development of the drama sidelines Yuki herself from much immediate relevance to the story, with what should be the focus on her moral reinvention after completing her first programme of retribution, and an exploration of her character in greater depth. Instead, her relationship with Shusuke is mooted, but poorly developed, and the problem that faced the creators – how could Yuki be both an unstoppable force and a woman of the world too? – is one finally shied away from. Whilst as a dark politicised thriller this is generally a success, as a Lady Snowblood film, it's a mess.

One cogent scene shows her listening with alien detachment to Ransui and Aya screwing with their anguish-soaked ecstasy, such human frailty and fulfillment beyond her, but it’s not developed with any force. Instead, the story, in spite of its resonance, is still in structure very familiar and varying elements and scenes rather flimsily connected. Fujita maintains the look of the first film but with most of the inventive expositional stylistics absent, except in a brief illustration of Ransui’s past. His compositions, defined by muted light and a quiet palette of colours in absorbing the grim world Yuki survives in, contrasted with the plush wonders of a fantasy vision of Meiji-period in interior decoration and clothing, balancing classical Japan and Edwardian-era westernisation, nonetheless convey the fundamentally schismatic world he’s portraying.

The elegant but carefully physical, earthy direction and photography convey immediate, corporeal pain and pleasure (in the familiar meaty sexuality in Japanese films of the ‘70s), and hazy, exhausted emotion. Kaji, although theoretically indispensability in the role, seems on occasions as limited in scope as Christopher Lee’s was in Hammer’s later Dracula films. She’s reduced to brief reactive scenes in much of the middle half of the film, but Kaji is even more supernaturally intense here, looking grey and haggard, eaten away by existential despair balanced by a still-vibrant will to survive and hate of transgressors. Yuki, having given up her sword, is hesitant to take it up again, first willing to accept Seishiro’s pressuring offer of a job and later to defend a cause she thinks is righteous. Her transformation into the kind of genuine underclass anarchist that Ransui can only dream of being is an alluring notion, but again the film can’t quite come to grips with that possibility.

Still, many moments retain the demented voltage and desolate splendour of the first film: the cool aura of defeated nobility in the scene of Yuki’s capture, battling her opponents with back to the sea and a washed-out sunrise; Yuki’s shady rescuers taking command of her carriage to the gallows wearing infantile masks; Toad (Kôji Nanbara), one Seishiro’s agents, withstanding a beating from Shusuke’s slum friends when he’s caught spying and even slicing off his own arm rather than failing his boss; Seishiro’s pet enforcer, a police inspector (Rinichi Yamamoto), torturing Ransui with relish with Aya watching in horror from another room; her coldly hysterical reprisal by stabbing the inspector in the eye, being slashed to death by his subordinates even as she tries to hold him in a death-embrace; his later loss of his other eye to Yuki’s blade-throwing skills; Shusuke sending his hated and loved brother and wife off together for a Viking funeral and contorting in grief and plague-riddled ruin; Yuki striding up to the blinded inspector, stripping him of his shotgun and blasting him dead with punitive efficiency.

The scene in which Ransui makes his appeal to Yuki takes place, memorably, in the pet cemetery where his friends were buried, their grave markers wavering like rushes around the assailed pair of outsiders caught in the liquid zone between life and death, and there’s a kind of terse tragedy when Yuki has to dispatch the mortally wounded Shusuke at his begging, ending his life through compassion rather than hate this time and his body welling strangely discoloured blood. The climax is disappointingly staged and downbeat, when a bone-crunching consummation is desperately needed after all the grimness, but the very coda, with a flashing title suggesting the “eventful” Meiji era was coming to end, several administration officials and many of its thugs lying as bloody messes, has something of the cool cynicism of the end of Kihachi Okamoto’s Samurai: the struggles of the individual and the downtrodden in the web of history are just an opaque part of a pattern. If the film is a disjointed contraption that spelt the perhaps premature end of a great antiheroine, Love Song of Vengeance is still a compelling experience.

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