Last year when I reviewed Lady Snowblood, it was a nice respite from the headier films I usually take on in Criterion Month as it’s about as purely entertaining of an action movie as you could ask for. Granted, it also manages to be visually arresting in a way that elevates it above pure pulp into Criterion territory, which is a little ironic considering its visuals are rooted in its Manga source material. Watching its sequel, Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance, was a bit of a similar experience, considering I could fit the length of both Lady Snowblood movies within the last film I watched. Though Love Song of Vengeance is a bit of a departure from the original film, as it tones down the over-the-top violence and extensive sword fights considerably, but I think is a more interesting companion piece in the process.
We catch up with Yuki, known to the public as the elusive assassin Lady Snowblood (played by Meiko Kaji) at a building that has been completely destroyed by what I assume is the epic fight that served as the finale of the first film. She is almost immediately surrounded by members of the Secret Police looking to arrest her, and as she is always inclined to do, Yuki mercilessly hacks the crap out of them with her sword and easily escapes. However, she is then cornered on the beach by a squadron of police too overwhelming to fight her way through, so she gives herself and is quickly sentenced to hanging.
Seeing an opportunity, the head of the police instead asks her to spy on the well-known anarchist Ransui Tokunaga (Juzo Itami), who is in possession of a mysterious document that the local government is convinced is capable of causing rioting and social unrest. If Yuki can obtain the document, she will be granted immunity. Yuki then goes undercover as a maid, living with Ransui while becoming introduced to his willingness to die for the cause. Yuki becomes quickly enamored with him, however, all but abandoning her idea of bringing the document back to the Secret Police. This then results in an all-out war between the state and the people who live in the slums, as those in power are clearly more interested in crushing any sort uprising than keeping their poorer citizens safe.
The film does sprinkle some historical context throughout the film, making us aware of where Japanese politics were at during its 1905 setting, though I can’t say I felt more informed about the period after watching Love Song of Vengeance. That said, the film’s political nature does add a nice bit of thematic complexity to the film, since the first Lady Snowblood is so obsessively built on the idea of revenge. In this film, Yuki is less the focal point, as she’s more or less caught up in this conflict between the proletariat and their overlords. It doesn’t feel unlike the way Kurosawa would often stick a feral Toshiro Mifune character in the middle of some larger conflict between two warring entities set against the backdrop of feudal Japan.
Since Love Song of Vengeance is rooted a little less in Yuki’s lust for revenge, there’s noticeably less fighting sequences and less flippant violence. This isn’t to say this isn’t also a very violent film, as it includes multiple gouged eyes as well as a character who has his arm chopped off earlier in the film, only to return later in the film to have his other arm chopped off in blood-splurting glory. Though the violence here is less abundant, and when it does show up it’s a lot more sadistic. How much of this is a deliberate choice is hard to know, but it feels appropriate considering the way the film focuses on the cruelty for the sake of cruelty of the ruling class.
While Love Song of Vengeance‘s less kinetic vibe does make a little less of an impact than the first Lady Snowblood, it does go in a more interesting direction than if they’d just pumped up the action and style even more. The first Lady Snowblood already feels like it’s the over-the-top sequel to some more minimalistic samurai flick, but it just happens to the first one. I guess I just wish Love Song of Vengeance had retained some of its more arresting visuals in addition to its more somber tone, but perhaps that was also intentional. Either way, it makes for a worthy follow-up that makes you a little sad that Lady Snowblood couldn’t have been placed in more films than just these two, as her icy stare and swirling swords are always a bloody thrill to watch.