Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Meiko Kaji at Japan Society: Lady Snowblood—Love Song of Vengeance

The late Meiji Era was a good time to be a bourgeoisie Zaibatsu, unless you happened to provoke Yuki Kashima, a.k.a. Lady Snowblood. Kashima consummated her vengeance in the first film, but she is still out there (despite the serious injuries she sustained in the previous climax). Instead of killing to fulfill her blood pact for payback, she now dispatches running dog flunkies of the corrupt ruling class that rub her the wrong way. That is all fine and good, but is nowhere near as satisfying. Even with a moderate case of sequelitis, the title character remains iconically awesome in Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (trailer here), which screens as part of the Japan Society’s weekend retrospective, Cruel Beauty: A Romantic Weekend with Meiko Kaji.

The four thugs who killed Kashima’s father and brutalized her mother are now deader than dead, but that does not mean the cops are willing to let things slide. After enduring the spectacular opening beatdown, they finally capture Lady Snowblood and quickly convict her in a kangaroo court. However, the foppish civil servant Seishiro Kikui offers her a reprieve from the gallows if she will assassinate anarchist rabble-rouser Ransui Tokunaga. Kashima agrees because what does she have to lose, but double crosses Kikui as soon as she takes Tokunaga’s measure.

Briefly, Lady Snowblood takes on the role of bodyguard, but she is a much better assassin. When Kikui launches a full-scale attack, Kashima barely escapes with her life and Tokunaga’s incriminating documents. Fortunately, Tokunaga’s estranged brother Shusuke practices medicine in one of the slum’s no-go zones. Shusuke Tokunaga’s animosity for his brother and sister-in-law-ex-wife remains unabated, but he isn’t about to turn away Lady Snowblood, because obviously.

The biggest problem with Love Song of Vengeance is Kashima’s less proactive role. It is not that she is passive, but she is reactive, deciding who to align with and then killing off the other side accordingly. It is still beautiful to watch her do her thing, but it doesn’t resonate in your gut like the original film. Also, the depiction of the corrupt, war-mongering Meiji government as a stand-in for Vietnam-era capitalism now looks like a clumsy relic of the past.

On the other hand, Fujita stages two of the franchise’s best action sequences, both featuring Lady Snowblood (naturally) hacking and slashing her way through crooked coppers as she walks down narrow pathways towards the camera. The blood still flows a bright crimson red, liberally pooling as the result of Kashima’s handiwork. Kikui is also a suitably odious villain, who even weaponizes the plague virus in his scheme to bring down the Tokunagas and Kashima.

The camera still loves Meiko Kaji’s Lady Snowblood, whose action chops are arguably even stronger the second time around. As Kikui, the preening Shin Kishida absolutely gorges on the scenery. Jûzô Itami (now better known for directing crossover hits like Tampopo) also plays Ransui Tokunaga with all proper dignity and even a little edge. However, the blustery Shusuke Tokunaga inexplicably lurches all over the map to serve the whims of the narrative.

There is plenty of betrayal and blood splatter in Love Song, but the grafted-on social conscience is awkwardly superfluous. Needless to say, the sequel works best when Fujita allows Lady Snowblood to be Lady Snowblood. The original Lady Snowblood is an exploitation masterwork every cineaste should catch up with. Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance is a pleasing diversion, especially as part of an apt mini-binge for Valentine’s Day when it screens this Saturday (2/11) at the Japan Society during their Meiko Kaji tribute.