Genre: Sword Mistress Revenge Tale
review in one breath
Kashima Yuki inevitably finds herself in prison following the vengeful murder spree making up this film's prequel. But at the very steps of the gallows, she is given an opportunity to take up her sword once again, this time to strike down an enemy of the government. However, the closer she comes to her target, the heavier her sword and task become. This is a decent follow-up to the exemplary prequel by the same director.
This film and its 1973 prequel Lady Snowblood are both directed by Fujita Toshiya, whose career includes 33 in all. I was personally very impressed with Lady Snowblood and laud it quite highly in my review if it, particularly in relation to the many other female/heroine films being produced during this same period.
There are (at least) a couple interesting directions a discussion of this film can take. The foremost and most obvious regards director Fujita's depiction of his heroine Kashima Yuki, particularly in terms of how he elevates her ferocity and resoluteness all while effectively preserving Yuki's demeanor within traditional (Meiji) norms and storyline expectations. By that I mean a great difference exists between the Kashima Yuki character, who is quite pure and almost demonically formidable, and the near flood of other "tough girl" heroine films which for the most part, to one degree or another, rely on nudity or sexploitative themes to propel themselves.
I've already said plenty on that topic (albeit in bits and pieces, here and there) in my recent (inexplicable) flurry of reviews of these early 1970s femme fatale films. Rather than repeat myself, I'll just point you here.
The other issue which really struck me involves the rather unique historical setting of this film (and its prequel). In my review of Lady Snowblood I briefly mentioned that its storyline takes place immediately following the socially radical transition (in 1867) from the Tokugawa Era to the Meiji Restoration. This transition amounted to quite monumental (and sudden) cultural and social shift as all local institutions and governments began strongly promoting (upon the population) a new recognition of national governmental authority and its corresponding sense of "nationalism".
Such forced emphasis upon developing a national patriotism or sense of nationalism often occurred, however, at the expense of the individual citizen. For example, one of the first decisions made by the Meiji government was to create a national army. So in 1873, they enacted a conscription law ("forced draft") requiring of all eligible males four years mandatory service in the army, followed by three years in the "reserves". (Welcome to modernity!)
For whatever reason, the government allowed an "exemption" from this conscription to anyone able to pay 270 yen, a rather substantial sum at that time. In essence, the exemption policy simply resulted in ensuring the poor went to war while the wealthy did not. This ill-conceived policy quickly became known as the "blood tax" and sparked several citizen revolts throughout the country.
This provided the setting for the tragic opening of the prequel wherein Yuki's parent and siblings are killed by a small group of dishonest villagers who had been collecting the "blood tax" from the neighboring population and making empty promises regarding exemption from military service. When the well-dressed Mr. Kashima strode into town, the thieves mistook him for a real government collector and quickly cut he and his entire family down. Thus that film's core vendetta theme is grounded wholly within this very specific historical setting.
By 1900 (34 years into the Meiji Restoration) the new governmental, political and military machinery were well in place. But there emerged a growing concern among scholars and the "intellectuals" regarding the momentum with which Japan was throwing itself toward the future. In 1902 the famous novelist Natsume Soseki (whose face you'd recognize from the 1000¥ bill) wrote:
People say that Japan has awakened thirty years ago, but it was awakened by a fire bell and jumped out of bed. It was not a genuine awakening but a totally confused one. Japan has tried to absorb Western culture in a hurry and as a result has not had time to digest it. Japan must be truly awakened as regards literature, politics, business, and all other areas.
While many important scholars such as Natsume worked in ultimately constructive ways to bring such "genuine awakening" to the newly modernized Japan, there were other intellectuals who philosophically dissented entirely from Japan's embrace of the West. Under certain situations, wherein such ideological dissent gained traction amongst the population, perhaps even causing a public uprising, the government would view these scholars as "dangerous to the State". Effort would then go into arresting or simply eliminating such spokesmen.
And it is precisely within this governmental witch hunt for ideological "anarchists" that Kashima Yuki finds herself in this film.
The character Kashima Yuki is played by Kaji Meiko, at this time a very well-known actress appearing in several "tough girl" films. (Just look here.) The anarchist Ransui is played by Itami Juzo - the same Itami Juzo who would later go on to direct the very popular Tampopo (1985), Taxing Woman (1987), Ageman (1990), Minbo no Onna (1992), Daibyonin (1995), A Quiet Life (1995) and several others. (By the way, the leading actress in those films is Ito's wife, Miyamoto Nobuko). The hunky anarchist doctor Shusuke is played by Harada Yoshio who will go on to appear in a gazillion other films (actually 100 more) such as Yagyu Conspiracy (1978 - where he KICKED-BUTT!), Another Heaven (2000), Party 7 (2000 - as Captain Banana!!), Azumi (2003 - as Gessai) 9 Souls (2003)... etc, etc, ETC. (!)
The year is 1905 and Kashima Yuki is weary and on the run from authorities following her assassination of 37 people (!!!) in the prequel. But when surrounded by a mob of police, rather than fight to the bitter end, she throws her sword and submits to whatever fate awaits her.
She is quickly tried and sentenced to death by hanging for her crimes. On the way to the gallows, however, she is suddenly whisked away by the mysterious Kikui Seishiro, head of Secret Police. Once inside his remote and opulent headquarters, he propositions Kashima to once again take up her sword and secretly assassinate an "enemy of the State", the political anarchist Tokunaga Ransui. Rasui is in possession of a critical document which Kikui seems quite obsessed with, deeming it highly dangerous to the stability of the government. If Kashima can obtain and deliver the document to Kikui, he will grant her immunity from her charges.
Kashima is soon able to infiltrate Ransui's home posing as a servant girl, and sets about looking for the document. But the more she observes Ransui, the more she questions the path Kikui has put her on. When Ransui confides in Yuki, knowing full well who she is, asking her to deliver the document to his brother Shusuke, Kashima will be forced to decide her allegiance.
Not bad at all. Under the hand of director Fujita, the formidable heroine developed in the prequel is satisfactorily maintained here in this second film. Though she is not here driven by the powerful inner demons as in the prior film, there is enough of an element of injustice to make her ferocity plausible. But indeed, the driving edge of revenge is missing here and so with it perhaps the most fascinating element of the original Lady Snowblood. She is, in essence here, a hired assassin whose reputation by now precedes her. Everyone knows her name and there is very little covertness or personal motivation in her tactics.
The scenery and cinematography here are quite good in places, especially the outdoor scenes. The action scenes are far fewer than the prequel and Yuki ends up killing more men in the opening scene than in the remainder of the film. On the other hand, the fact that this film presents Kashima as a formidable and unapproachable assassin means that her swords skills approach those of the demonic swordsman in Gojoe (but not quite).
If you watched (or plan to watch) Lady Snowblood, you'll likely want to see this one too, and you won't be sorely disappointed. This film is definitely different from the first, perhaps even qualitatively, but by giving Kashima a different status and modus operandi (as hired assassin), director Fujita is able to place her within a different story while still maintaining some semblance of her original mystique. But indeed, the mystique of the original stands quite high above what we have here.
One last trivia tidbit: This film's theme song, Shura no Hana ("Flower of Carnage"), is sung by none other than Kaji Meiko who, in her day, had quite a singing career, of sorts.
Version reviewed: Region 1 subtitled DVD available at all mainstream venues.
|Though subtly implied at best, here's a rather unique historical setting involving cultural instability during the early decades of the Meiji Restoration.||Major sword carnage ranging from eyeballs, to limbs to entire squadrons of police. And the bad guys have guns. Oh, and the festering boils. Not pretty.||Some randy toe sucking and a drunken slap on the derriere.||Though not as good as the prequel, this is a decent tale which continues the saga of sad yet formidable Kashima Yuki.|