Recently Kazuo Koike passed away of pneumonia at the age of 82. A legendary and prolific manga writer, Koike’s comics were the basis of several movies I’ve reviewed: HANZO THE RAZOR: SWORD OF JUSTICE, LADY SNOWBLOOD, THE DRAGON FROM RUSSIA, CRYING FREEMAN, and most famously the LONE WOLF AND CUB series (for which he was also a screenwriter). I love his stories, which often combine interesting historical detail with colorful pulp concepts, and are always centered on characters who live casually, confidently extreme lives. Though some are hired killers and outlaws bitter toward a society that has betrayed and rejected them, they live by codes of honor that frequently lead them to fighting for the oppressed against the cruel and the corrupt. This is definitely the case in LOVE SONG OF VENGEANCE, the only sequel to LADY SNOWBLOOD. Criterion released the pair as a set a couple years ago and this sad occasion finally inspired me to pick it up.
Meiko Kaji (also star of the STRAY CAT ROCK and FEMALE PRISONER 701: SCORPION series’) plays Yuki Kashima, a.k.a. Lady Snowblood. She actually says early on that she has dropped the “blood” from her name, but no one in the movie ever respects this choice. Sorry, Lady Snow. In the excellent first film we saw the story of her wicked life, born in a prison and trained from birth to avenge the rape and framing of her mother. Released the year after the first film, part 2 takes place around a decade later, but it doesn’t seem like she’s been able to relax since fulfilling her life’s purpose of revenge. Now she’s an infamous assassin wanted for 37 murders.
I love the opening scene. She’s visiting her mother’s grave when a mob of swordsmen appear from all directions. I mean, don’t worry, she has a sword on her, but she doesn’t just leap into battle. Instead she intently walks away, not even acknowledging them, only striking them down as they move on her. We see one guy walking behind her for so long as they circle around and she pays him no mind at all until he finally gets the guts up to, you know… fail to kill her. Kaji is so damn good in this role – she plays the scene like a woman holding her head high as she walks past a bunch of catcalling yahoos.
As she exits the gates of the cemetery, children on the street are singing to welcome back parading soldiers from victory over Russia. It’s 1905. I have to admit I forgot that Lady Snowblood’s adventures were butting up against the 20th century, so I was a little shocked to see a dude in an inspector hat following her. I should’ve remembered these are stories about the people left behind in the modernization of Japan.
A narrator explains that the infamous Lady Snowblood lived her life paying no attention to world events like the war. I think the implication is more that her life is too dramatic to be concerned with politics than that she’s ignorant. This story will find her starting to care more about what goes on around her, but not in the nationalistic way the introduction could imply.
I had heard mixed things about this sequel so I was ready for it to be underwhelming. Such concerns were almost immediately proven unnecessary. Early in the movie she has surrendered to the police in dramatic fashion, been sentenced to death, and then been busted out of a transport wagon by strangers on horseback in creepy white masks. She is correctly suspicious, because they aren’t people who are sympathetic toward her. They just want this talented killer to be in their debt, and her taskmaster Seishiro Kikui (Shin Kishida, ZATOICHI MEETS YOJIMBO, LAKE OF DRACULA, LONE WOLF AND CUB: BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX & BABY CART IN PERIL) assigns her to spend a month spying on a guy, steal a document from him, and kill him. His name is Ransui Tokunaga, he’s an anarchist writer, and he’s played by TAMPOPO director Juzo Itami. Kikui mentions Ransui’s “violent ideology of anarchy,” which is real rich considering he and his mob just murdered a bunch of cops to get to Yuki.
She doesn’t seem to have much of a choice, so she goes undercover as Ransui’s maid. He seems kind of eccentric, lives in a cluttered house, takes pride in his work, also he’s kind of sexually harassing and kind of crazy. I like when she comes in to bring him some food or something and he instantly spins around and points a sword at her. He apologizes and explains that he has alot of enemies, which makes sense. But I don’t know if he notices how steadily and fearlessly she holds up the tray in blocking position.
He and his wife Aya (Kazuko Yoshiyuki, KIKUJIRO, DEPARTURES) seem to like Yuki, which is more surprising when he reveals that he knows she’s there to kill him. He explains that those people who busted her out are the secret police, “a shadow police force, a shadow army,” who are the off-the-books killers and defamers of revolutionaries. They’re after him because his document proves that a year ago a government conspiracy murdered his colleagues and framed them as traitors. Then buried them without funerals in a pet cemetery. Seriously, fuck tha secret police.
Before long the actual police arrest Ransui for harboring Lady Snowblood – the very thing the secret police set up. She gets away, and they beat him bloody with bamboo sticks, but he won’t tell them where she went. Kikui comes in and offers to take over the torturing: “My organization is better at this sort of thing.” I’m not clear if the real police understand that they’re working with the guy who released their fugitive in the first place.
So Yuki is on the run again, hiding out in the slums with Ransui’s estranged brother Shusuke (Yoshio Harada, THE HUNTED, AZUMI, AZUMI 2). He’s a doctor running a clinic for the poor, but also an extortionist and kind of a cool long-haired rogue who Yuki actually met before. He saved her from a bear trap. Small world.
She can handle herself even while bedridden. She hears someone on the roof so she reaches for a scalpel and throws it into the ceiling like a dagger. Blood drips through the hole in the ceiling before we see that she’s impaled a dude’s hand. When he tries to get away he gets mobbed by seemingly every resident of the slum, which is maybe a paranoid idea of the danger of “bad neighborhoods,” but a fitting punishment for this prick.
Yuki moves so gracefully and strangely in those constrictive kimonos, stepping nimbly and rhythmically down stairs, walking in steady, deliberate lines as she cuts through her foes. And she expresses so much with her eyes. Mostly anger. Or disgust. Weirdly I think she looks like a drawing by Lone Wolf and Cub comics artist Goseki Kujima, but not the more cartoonish style of Lady Snowblood‘s Kazuo Kamimura.
I like that the movie sympathizes with the middle class dissident intellectual, but even moreso with the downtrodden residents of the slums, who the narrator says live “with stubborn pride and brash audacity.” The authorities don’t even consider them to be human beings. We hear them discussing this literally. The bad guys wear ties, top hats, pinstripes, fancy capes and shit. They’re such bastards they’re even gonna make Lady fucking Snowblood care what goes on in the community – the very opposite of what the narrator told us she was like. And her titleistical love song of carnage will be split equally across their opulent digs full of art, hunting trophies, candelabras and fancy chairs draped with carpets, and right outside of a temple. Because killers in these movies are also poets.
Honestly the LADY SNOWBLOODs and LONE WOLF AND CUBs are much more about story than action for me, but the sword fighting here is nicely choreographed and yeah, you get some blood geysers. One character gets both eyes poked out in two separate incidents. A one-armed man loses his one arm. And Yuki turns a guy’s gun against him. Don’t let Yuki get your gun, stupid.
This one looks beautiful on Blu-Ray. Most of the colors will be kinda subdued but then there will be a bold red that just pops off the background. I’m talking about rose petals and walls and stuff, not just the blood, which is something of a DAWN OF THE DEAD hue (even when it spills in the water). I also love the bright purple cloak she wears at one point, the secret police silhouetted on horseback in front of a wall of flames, the orange of a burning funeral boat dancing on a tinted blue ocean background.
The Criterion Edition has a really interesting interview with one of the screenwriters, Norio Osada (JAPAN ORGANIZED CRIME BOSS, SOUL OF BRUCE LEE), who explains much of the background of both films. It’s the same director as part 1, Toshiya Fujita, who did THE RED LANTERN, one of his “realistic dramas about youth and the generation gap,” in between. Apparently violent pulp was not really his thing, but he did an excellent job.