Oftentimes, female-driven Asian swordplay cinema has a difficult time locating its bearings, coming together into an odd bird of a genre. In brisk entries like Shadowless Sword, ICHI, and Azumi, the modicum of a narrative structure largely depends on the charisma and sword-adorned poise of the heroine, either shackling it with discomfiture or giving it a rush of energy with gracefulness contained within invigorated choreography. Satō Shinsuke's Princess Blade, strangely, suffers from the opposite predicament; it discovers a stunning female warrior, a captivating yet hard-edged beauty in Shaku Yumiko, and then wraps her in an innocuous revenge-driven plot that needlessly -- and insufficiently -- dithers around with monotonous exposition, where fuller, more tightly-executed and visually arresting action beats are needed.
There's not a whole lot to Princess Blade's story, a futurist reinvention of the "Lady Snowblood" manga books from the '70s (which have rendered an exquisite film on their own, reviewed here). Essentially what needs to be taken away is that Yuki (Shaku Yumiko), a skilled blade-wielding assassin, exists as the single remaining blood relative of the Takemikazuchi family, currently helmed by Byakurai (Kyûsaku Shimada). When she discovers an appalling secret about her past from one of her family's old bodyguards, she grabs her blade and flees from everything she's known, vowing revenge against the league of assassins. A routine sequence of events drops her on the doorstep of a rival hitman's gas-station/home, where Yuki keeps piercing, untrusting eyes on the man as he rehabilitates her -- and cares for his mute sister -- following a severe throw-down with her compatriots.
The tone of Princess Blade jumps into operatic mode quickly, escalating into a whirlwind of double-crossing and spirited angered posturing before we've even got a grip on Yuki or her clan. In order for a piece of revenge cinema to work, even one as simply-aimed as this, we've got to have a grasp on the emotional turmoil that the hero's undergone, or, at the very least, on the bloodthirsty revenge-seeker as a character herself, or it'll seem blunt-force with its hack-'n-slash aims. A semi-vigorous sword duel and a cluster of terse conversations between clan members aren't enough to flesh out a coherent story when they're rushed through a desperate fifteen-minute plea for vested interest. Instead, the script scrapes together the bare-boned components -- a deadly heroine, her targets, a snippet of history and the people who might soften her -- and lets the pieces fall as they may, concerned only with redundant explanations forcing things along in hopes that it all hooks.
A modish punk-apocalyptic mood tries to hide the story's wilted limitations. Bathed in slate grays -- shot by Kawazu Taro, one of the film's crucially successful assets -- a shadowy, stark futuristic landscape permeates much of Princess Blade, with morose industrial buildings and burnt orange Blade Runner-inspired neon signing occasionally breaking up the stony interior sequences. Forcefully glum music tries to add weight to the conversations Yuki has with her previous brethren and the man who's taken her into his home, yet it rings false through a compulsion to tap into the music as enough of an emotional barometer. There's simply not enough soundness underneath the snappy, lathered-on turn-of-the-century pizzazz, which makes it doubly as hard to take the more tender moments -- naturally bathed in warmer lighting -- as seriously as the scenes require.
That's par for the course for battle-focused pictures like Princess Blade, though: just enough of a rickety narrative infrastructure to bolster the bloody warfare from fray to fray. While saddled with an uninspired and malnourished story, however, it also merely clunks along with vigorous but chopped-up choreography from Donnie Yen that doesn't quite justify the slog. The editing style claims most of the blame, giving it a jerky, rigid feel that cuts away at all the wrong moments from the HK master's otherwise mindful ballet of clanging blades and bodily weaving, while stunt doubles are often quite obvious for several of the film's key characters, especially the stand-in for Yuri. Some of the blade-slinging can be satisfying -- a few duels in woodsy areas show a pulse, especially when concentrating on a one-on-one fight between Yuri and another Takemikazuchi female -- yet they're spastically jammed in between the blasé, borrowed manga adaptation, and it's not a gratifying mix.
What does work -- more like who -- is Shaku Yumiko as the focal heroine, whose darting glances and sneakily thin, boyish pose as Yuri easily towers above the unsound jumble. She posits hints of solemnity and meditation in the character when the script neglects to do so, mostly through her not-so-empty glances and her cautious body language. She's just as convincing in the swarm of battle (when it's clear that it's her doing the warring), not afraid to pour out ferocity through her feisty frame, which aids the film exponentially as it drags its barren revenge yarn kicking and screaming towards an energetic, bloody conclusion. She, along with Donnie Yen's choreography and the way photographer Kawazu Taro captures the austere environment, nearly justifies Princess Blade's rhythm of ungainly drama and middle-of-the-road action.
Video and Audio:
Princess Blade originally arrived from ADV films in a non-anamorphic presentation, something that the good folks at Eastern Star have done back and fixed with this special edition. Still framed at 1.85:1, the transfer has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions, though it shows a light black box around the image (windowbox). It wouldn't surprise me, however, to learn that nothing else has really been altered between releases, which, aside from the non-16x9 element, the original disc actually looked decent. Some mosquito noise pops up in the background and around a few fine details in close-ups, while edge enhancement can be spotted during many brighter exterior shots. Also, a few blips pop up here and there, but not to a horrendous degree. However, the range of motion stays fluid, the stony blues and greens remain mostly firm, and the interior shots occasionally showcase a few blasts of moderately pleasing detail. It's fine, but a bit dated in appearance.
Two tracks are available: English and Japanese 5.1 surround presentations, and both aren't too shabby in the slightest. The clanging of blades rings stylishly loud from several directions, but with an awareness of the sound's limitations, while the music unleashes its vigor at all angles. A train rushing along tests the threshold of the rear-channel elements, from the slight bass-driven rattle to the mid-range potency, which it supports just fine. Dialogue wavers a bit and stays poised at the middle of the track, but it's clear and free of distortion. It's a decently satisfying track that serves the action-aggressive ferocity of the film fine enough. Only English subtitles have been included.
Making of Princes Blade (36:20, 4x3):
Instead of a focused making-of piece, this actually features director Satō Shinsuke, visual effects coordinator Shinju Higuchi, and Takashige Ichise as they watch behind-the-scenes content while offering their commentary on what they're watching. They discuss the inquisitiveness of the lead actress, the relationship developed between the director and cinematographer, the fig that fell over scenes, and other points. The discussion remains casual with a few flutters of insight into the production, though the tempo's a bit more relaxed to really hold interest for the entire time.
Special Effects (20:05, 4x3):
Mixing storyboards with composite Before-After comparisons, this visual effects breakdown tackles several of the scenes from the film and shows their progression -- from the train sequence and the futuristic buildings to the film's final gory blast of violence. Shinju Higuchi handles this material similarly to that of the general making-of piece, offering his commentary on sequences while they play out before him, and it's often self-aggrandizing and compelling to see.
Donnie Yen (25:38, 4x3 Letterbox):
Similarly to the other assembly pieces, actor/director/choreographer Donnie Yen interjects his own commentary during bursts of first sequences in succession of one another. His comments remain fairly on the surface, often giving a running description of the sequences playing out before him, but he lets bit slip in about the types of swords used and techniques implemented that make it worth the time.
Also included are a slate of Deleted Scenes (10:01, 4x3), several wishy-washy No Good Takes (6:07, 4x3), a series of Interviews (28:36, 4x3) with the cast and director, and a repetitive Behind The Scenes (19:47, 4x3) run of material. Also, a Theatrical Trailer has been made available on the first disc.
Princess Blade isn't bad; it's more overtly generic, malnourished as an unique narrative, and lacking the spark it needs to propel it between sword-heavy action sequences. It also doesn't help that the composition of the action sequences needs more polish, as Donnie Yen's fine choreography can get lost in quick cuts and other unshapely issues. Shaku Yumiko makes a suitable heroine that's compelling to watch, but she can't support the semi-science-fiction revenge energy created around her. Check out the likes of Shadowless Sword, Azumi, or even the original Lady Snowblood before hopping into this one, which will more than suffice with a Rental.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site