From the title of 1974's Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (修羅雪姫 怨み恋歌) you'd think its main character's motivation would be clear even if nothing else was. Unfortunately, this isn't so. This sequel to Lady Snowblood, also directed by Toshiya Fujita, finds its title character, again played by Meiko Kaji, quite unable to gain traction after the sharp focus of the previous film. The makers of the sequel display a greater interest in supporting characters but seem unaware of their own preferences as Kaji's character remains the camera's favourite subject. We just never seem to get around to discovering why she does the things she decides to do.
Moving over a decade ahead in time from its predecessor, Love Song of Vengeance is set just after the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and the influence of western culture is gaining ground in Japan. We catch up with Yuki, aka Lady Snowblood (Kaji), wearily fending off groups of men trying to capture her for her various crimes. Wearing a kimono and wielding only the short blade normally kept concealed in her umbrella, its difficult for the choreography to make it believable that she's managing to continually win against groups of ten or fifteen men. It is a fantasy film of a kind, though, so perhaps we're meant to take Kaji as the wearied but persistent traditional spirit of Japan fighting for survival. I'm not sure that neatly squares with the film's leftwing politics, though.
After she finally gives herself up, she's rescued by the head of the Secret Police, Kikui (Shin Kishida), whose household decor looks more like it belongs to a flamboyant gangster.
He wants her to pose as a servant to an anarchist writer named Tokunaga (Juzo Itami). She starts her job but, although it's never spelled out, her sympathy shifts to his side, presumably because of his sympathy for those living in the slums which the film portrays as convincingly miserable.
We spend a lot more time listening to him talk. He's not unlike a similar character in the first film but in that case the leftist writer's motive never eclipsed the primary thread about Yuki's quest to kill those responsible for murdering her parents. In Love Song of Vengeance, this character is made more of the focus before he's pushed aside and his slum dwelling brother takes centre stage as he cares for an injured Yuki. This man, Shusuke Tokunaga, is played by Yoshio Harada, whom one suspects the filmmakers would much rather had been the main star.
Arguably the real successor to Toshiro Mifune, Harada had an effortless, rough charisma and hair trigger reflexes. His appearances in Japan's copious exploitation films of the 70s led to greater, more experimental roles in films like Zigeunerweisen and an adaptation of One Hundred Years of Solitude called Farewell to Ark. In the last half of Love Song of Vengeance, the director milks every one of Harada's scenes for all they're worth, upgrading him to Yuki's collaborator and focusing much more on his physical anguish, cutting now and then to beautifully composed but pretty static reaction shots of Yuki.
His motives are clear but pretty simple, the resulting film feeling muddled and uncertain of its own motives. But there is a lot to appreciate in its performances and its compositions and, of course, there's plenty of the old ultra-violence.
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The final step to Panda Inn was cold.
Above the shuttered shops a zombie reads.
The plaster weeps its tears of straw and mould.
In rainy seasons now the river feeds.
A gauzy coin ascends resembling fluff.
Rebounding like a light, the feather goes.
A starry night is waiting on your cuff.
A leak's outside the tank and faintly glows.
They're busy placing drinks on lofty hills.
A trembling hand delivers tea to blue.
Related words bequeath a term in wills.
In unison the pod pronounces true.
Intriguing bow's retrieved in empty box.
Of this no arrow, hair, or viol talks.