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The Princess Blade - Shura Yuki Hime (Sato Shinsuke 2001)


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The Princess Blade
[Shura Yuki Hime]

Genre: Weepy Ninja Apocalyptic

review in one breath

In the distant future, the final princess of a clan of assassins discovers the identity of her mother's killer and must decide whether to seek revenge or pursue a life of peace and love. This is a contemporary remake of the early 1970s Japanese manga Shura Yuki Hime.


intro

In the early 1970s, manga artists Kamimura Kazuo and Koike Kazuo together published Shura Yukihime, a time-piece manga revolving around the formidable female character Yuki and her pursuit of vengeance.

In 1973, director Fujita Toshiya released a film based on the manga, also entitled it Shura Yukihime and cast Kaji Meiko in the role of the femme fatale Yuki. The film, which adhered rather strictly to the manga version and its heroine, was an instanst success and remains to this day a classic. Western audiences know this film by the English title Lady Snowblood. The following year Fujita directed a sequel entitled Shurayukihime: Urami Renga (Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance) again keeping Kaji in the role of Yuki.

The film under review here is a 2001 contemporary version of the original manga by director Sato Shinsuke. By "contemporary" I mean that while Sato uses the original manga as the inspiration for this film, the association is loose indeed, so much so that apart from the film's title (which is the same as the manga's) and the presence of a sword-wielding female heroine, viewers will not likely recognize any similarities between the two.

Significant differences between Lady Snowblood and Princess Blade include the following.

One key aspect of the original narrative was its historical setting in the early Meiji period. For more than two centuries leading up to this period (during the Tokugawa Era), Japan was under a strictly enforced isolation policy. The sudden advent of the Meiji Era was marked by a new open door policy toward the West, through which foreigners, culture, and especially weapons quickly poured in.

Rather than this traditional timeline, director Sato chooses to place his story into the future, set in a fictional, unidentified, China-like country. In place of the isolation policy of the Tokugawa regime, the opening scene's text paragraphs tell us of a 500 year isolation policy enforced by the emperor of the home country of the leading characters. Under that government, the Takemikazuchi Clan was charged with protecting the life of the Emperor (much like the Shinsengumi during the Tokugawa Era). They were a clan of highly trained and formidable royal guards.

But then, we are told -- still in the opening paragraph of text, a democratic revolution took place, over-throwing the Emperor and his establishment, causing the survivors of the Takemikazuchi Clan to flee for their lives to a foreign country where they now eke out a living as mercenaries and hired killers. The narrative then moves the storyline to a non-specific country (though everyone is speaking the same language, Japanese) under an obviously totalitarian style of government. Thus, several of the main characters are intricately involved in a subversive group aimed at overthrowing the regime and bring about a people's revolution.

Unlike the skillful use of historical setting in the original, all of this (fictional) backstory conjured up by Sato ultimately proves quite useless to the storyline. One glaring question is why, if Sato wanted to place his characters within an era of social turmoil, he chose a "foreign totalitarian government" immediately after telling us that a similar revolution just took place in the clan's home country. Why not set this tale during that revolution? Or conversely, why even mention this pre-history when it has virtually nothing to do with the plot and is immediately abandoned, except as an explanation that yes, the Takemikazuchi Clan is a trained group of assassins.

AND (I'm on a roll here) since EVERY fight scene except for the one during the opening credits involves fighting amongst the Takemikazuchi Clan members (meaning they are fighting themselves), what exactly do ANY of the historical details have to do with this storyline? In essence this is a film about a power struggle within a clan of assassins, who merely happen to be set in a certain time and place. The setting does not in any way impact their struggle nor the way this film concludes. All of Sato's concocted history is like wrapping paper which, once the film opens, is merely set aside and discarded.

A second major difference is found between the two versions of female heroine. In the Japanese title occurs the word hime which literally refers to a "princess" or "one born of noble birth". In the original manga and film, the use of this term is intended to carry a rather dark irony, since Yuki is born in prison, conceived solely out of her mother's desire for vengeance. Thus the only "nobility" possessed by Yuki is a near demonic pursuit of vengeance, and it is precisely THIS which makes the story so powerful.

On the other hand, through the fictional backstory of Sato, Yuki has become the child of the clan's "queen" and as such is of noble birth, making her a literal princess. Thus Sato's narrative is comprised solely of Yuki's coming of age and rightfully claiming her aristocratic birth right as leader of a rebellious faction of Takemikazuchi Clan. While the narrative does provide her with a vengeance motif, it comes nowhere near the intensity of the original. This is all about the future of the Clan and lacks any darker spiritual connotations.

And thirdly, the entire look and feel of this film differs completely from Lady Snowblood. In the original, the tone was quite mature and the violence formidable. For Sato's remake, he hired Hong Kong martial arts aficionado Donnie Yen as "Action Director". This results in a far greater emphasis on "action" while utterly sacrificing plausibility to the gods of style. Some of these scenes so absurdly preserve the lives of the leading characters despite ALL odds that they nearly rise to the level of giggle-inducing camp. Consider the scene where 8 trained assassins surround Yuki in a circle as she lies on the ground exhausted. Surely this spells the doom of the princess... UNLESS the old man Kuka can jump in at precisely the right split-second and deflect ALL EIGHT swords with his own, allowing Yuki to escape without a scratch. Sounds impossible right?

verdict

In terms of this film's association with the original Shura Yuki Hime, it will likely produce nothing but disappointment. On the other hand, if you are unaware of (or strain to mentally block out) the original and approach this film with no preconceived expectation, a certain group of viewers will undoubtedly enjoy this.

I am NOT a member of that group.

For me, the immediately apparent implausibility of the narrative, coupled with the fact that the character Yuki and her sword-wielding kung-fu ways seemed overwhelming for actress Shaku Yumioko all spelled disaster from very early on. Add to that an inordinate number of weepy scenes filled with LONG violin pieces, often punctuated with ridiculously stoic statements, and you've got one of those films which can make a a running time of 90 minutes seem like 10 hours.

Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD with English subtitles. Available via all mainstream venues.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Not even this fictional history makes any sense. Sword and gun violence, though nothing too graphic. Emphasis is upon kung-fu style action. Nope, though Yuki does show us her tattoo. The rather immature shortcomings of this film overwhelmed any hope of my enjoying it.

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