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

Director: Toshiya Fujita
Screenplay: Kiyohide Ohara and Norio Osada (based on the manga by Kazuo Kamimura & Kazuo Koike)
Stars: Meiko Kaji (Yuki Kashima), Juzo Itami (Ransui Tokunaga), Yoshio Harada (Shusuke Tokunaga), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Aya Tokunaga), Shin Kishida (Seishiro Kikui), Koji Nanbara (Toad), Rinichi Yamamoto (Inspector Maruyama), Toru Abe (Kendo Terauchi)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1974
Country: Japan
The Complete Lady Snowblood Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Lady Snowblood: Love Song of VengeanceDespite being mortally wounded and all but dead at the end of Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime), Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji), the deadly female assassin of the title, appears both alive and in very good health at the beginning of the sequel, Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (Shurayukihime–Urami Renga). Returning director Toshiya Fujita stages a bravura opening setpiece in which Yuki is at a cemetery visiting her mother’s grave when she is quickly surrounded by a dozen or more assailants, each of whom she slashes down in a long, unbroken tracking shot looking back at her as she strolls unperturbed down a winding, downhill path, the panicked and desperate killers swirling around her like panting insects. It’s a beautifully absurd action sequence that immediately reestablishes Yuki’s physical and spiritual gravitas, but then again, that is precisely what viewers were expecting after the first film’s gratuitous blood geysers and over-the-top swordplay.

However, Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance is a decidedly different kind of film than its predecessor, and unfortunately not as good. Yuki, who was born in prison to a mother who birthed her for the very specific purpose of wreaking vengeance on the foursome who killed her husband and raped her, has fulfilled her purpose and is now in a kind of aimless existence, wanting to give up the sword but constantly running from both the police and various killers. Early in the film she is swarmed by police headed by the corrupt Inspector Maruyama (Rinichi Yamamoto) and quickly tried and sentenced to hanging for killing 37 people (which seems about right, judging from the first film’s carnage). However, before she can be hung she is rescued by men working for Kikui Seishiro (Shin Kishida), the head of a shadowy secret police force. Kikui wants Yuki to work for him by infiltrating the home of Ransui Tokunaga (Juzo Itami), a political radical whose anarchic ideas threaten the controlling, cohesive nationalism of the Meiji era (the film takes place in 1906, just after the Japanese won the Russo-Japanese War).

Yuki takes the assignment and pretends to be a maid to gain access to Ransui’s home and search for a secret document that the police desperately want, but soon finds herself feeling sympathy with Ransui’s political ideology and recognizing the deep-seated corruption represented by Kikui and Kendo Terauchi (Tôru Abe), the high-ranking minister for whom he works. Thus, rather than fighting for personal vengeance that has been passed down to her by her mother, Yuki is now fighting a crooked political system out of her own free will, which fundamentally changes the nature of her character. While she still maintains a certain mythic quality, especially when wielding a blade with almost supernatural skill and force, Yuki is now a more down-to-earth political operative, hacking and slashing her way through complex legal forces that have aligned to maintain power for a few at the expense of the many, which are here represented by a slum populated with human “garbage” that is viewed as so expendable by the powers that be that they literally burn it down at the end. Yuki ultimately finds herself aligned with Ransui’s brother, Shusuke (Yoshio Harada), a handsome doctor who lives in the slum and is Ransui’s only hope, even though they have a long-standing feud between them.

Love Song of Vengeance is decidedly less adventurous stylistically than its predecessor, as director Toshiya Fujita doesn’t dig as deep into his bag of tricks, straying only a few times from the film’s basic aesthetic to incorporate historical footage and black-and-white still images to represent a story a character is relating. Never fear, though, as there are still plenty of pulpy aesthetics to be had, although it isn’t until late in the film that the blood really starts to spurt and spray (for most of the film Fujita is content with gurgly sound effects and lots of arm-waving by the newly slashed for violent effect). However, in some ways the violence in Love Song of Vengeance is even more ghastly than the first film, as it depicts a protracted scene of torture, a woman gouging out a man’s eyeball with a hairpin, and multiple characters falling victim to the bubonic plague. It doesn’t necessarily exceed the original’s sense of gory absurdity, but rather takes it in new, grisly directions.

The biggest problem with Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance is that the film’s political machinations essentially sideline Yuki for a good portion of the film, relegating the star warrior to a peripheral character who largely observes what is happening around her, rather than directly affecting it. This conflicts tonally and ideologically with her newfound political awareness, creating an ironic devolution of her personal agency at the very moment she begins making her own decisions. She is also necessarily more vocal in this film, which is fine (Meiko Kaji can do more than just stare mercilessly), except when it means she has to enact ideological grandstanding. Just like Lady Snowblood, Love Song of Vengeance is good, pulpy fun, except when it makes the fatal mistake of taking itself too seriously.

The Complete Lady Snowblood Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The Complete Lady Snowblood is also available from the Criterion Collection on DVD (SRP: $29.95).
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioJapanese Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video interview with manga writer Kazuo Koike
  • Video interview with screenwriter Norio Osada
  • Trailers
  • Essay by critic Howard Hampton
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 5, 2016

    Both Lady Snowblood and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance have been given new 2K transfers from 35mm low-contrast prints newly struck from the original camera negatives. Digital restoration via MTI’s DRS and Digital Vision’s Phoenix have cleared up signs of age and wear and helped stabilize the images, which means these films are looking as good as, if not better than, they did when they first premiered in the early 1970s. Although relatively low-budget in nature, both films are gorgeously shot and feature bold color schemes that are very nicely presented here. The purple of Yuki’s umbrella and the orangey-red color of the tempra-paint-like blood look perfect. Detail is very strong, to the point that we can pick out pores in the close-ups of people’s faces and the texture of fabrics (it also means that some of the make-up effects don’t look all that special, but it’s all in keeping with the film’s pulpy sense of ridiculous fun). Some of the darker scenes feel a tad muddy, but that seems to be an issue with the cinematography, not the transfer. The monaural soundtracks were transferred at 24-bit from 35mm low-contrast prints and digitally restored to remove artifacts and ambient hiss, leaving them clean and clear. The film’s gory sound effects sound great, with plenty of gooshing, swishing, and spritzing noises to accompany all the bloodshed.
    In addition to original theatrical trailers for the two films, Criterion’s Blu-ray includes two new video interviews: one with Kazuo Koike, who wrote the original manga series on which the films are based (10 min.), and one with screenwriter Norio Osada (21 min.), who penned the screenplays for both films.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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