Beautiful Blood on Your Lip
Successors to GWG

Japanese Titles: Madness and Death

“I don’t wanna’ live any more . . . how ‘bout you?”
 (Riona Hazuki, “Black Angel”)

“Black Angel” (1998).  Riona Hazuki’s character returns to Japan as a young adult to avenge the death of her parents years before during a yakuza takeover.  As she recklessly confronts the yakuza who now run her father’s syndicate, she takes everyone down with her.  Well filmed and unsparingly bleak, “Black Angel” illustrates the warping of the samurai ethic into the yakuza code.

“Score 2:  The Big Fight” (1999).  Aya Nakamura plays the driver for a gang seeking to recover the proceeds of an earlier robbery, now buried at the site of an amusement park.  Double-crossed by each other and surprised by a pair of corrupt detectives and their henchmen, the covert operation unravels into a simple fight for survival amid gratuitous gunplay.  Nakamura’s ferociously efficient soldier is literally the last individual left alive.

“Wild Criminal” (1999).  Aya Nakamura plays the yakuza mistress who turns the tables on her male tormentor by seducing another woman whom she literally finds in the trunk of a car, then recruiting her as a partner.  Miho Nomoto appears in her best performance here, displaying real acting ability as a cynically hard, devious petty criminal with eyes like marbles.  When she says “Sayonara,” it’s for keeps.

“Pistol Opera” (2001).  Makiko Esumi’s dramatic screen presence and acting talent are riveting in this surreal exposition of the assassin film as social and political subtext.  Esumi’s character defies and provokes the prevailing order, engaging in a series of lethal clashes with highly stylized male rivals.  A girl admirer and her mysteriously veiled female contractor are consumed, together with the assassin, in a cult of death and ritualistic suicide.

“Princess Blade” (2001).  This re-make of “Lady Snowblood” located in the near-future sets Yumiko Shaku’s katana-wielding assassin on a course of vengeance against her erstwhile colleagues after discovering their responsibility for her mother’s murder.  In addition to katana fetishism and several stimulating fight scenes, Shaku portrays a bewildered yet driven character trapped within the straightjacket of her martial training.  Her body “just moves” – but only in combat.

“Gun Crazy” (2002).  Ryoko Yonekura is visually stunning as a broad-shouldered, Harley-riding “woman from nowhere” who enters an Okinawa base town seeking revenge on a local yakuza.  After being forced into several violent confrontations with U.S. soldiers and yakuza, the unusually painful personal secret driving her vengeance is eventually revealed.  Some fine gunplay and a strong performance by Yonekura set this apart from the later titles in the series.

The noteworthy recent Japanese titles summarized above include all those female action films that have substantially broken with the exploitation traditions exemplified by the “Zero Woman” series.  These include “Princess Blade,” Shinsuke Sato’s re-make of “Lady Snowblood” with action choreography by Donnie Yen, Hide’s noir “Wild Criminal” with Miho Nomoto, Aya Nakamura and Hitoshi Ozawa as the leads, as well as Ozawa’s own “Score 2:  The Big Fight” that provides Aya Nakamura with another opportunity to demonstrate that, at least in Japan, blond means bad.  Another noir-inspired actioner, Takashi Ishii’s “Black Angel Vol. 1” and Atsushi Muroga’s “Gun Crazy: A Woman from Nowhere” are classic yakuza sagas constructed around female vengeance narratives.  Seijun Suzuki’s eccentric “Pistol Opera” is an expression of pure cinema, as well as an intriguing exposition of possible political subtexts in assassin narratives.
Ultimately, love in its many guises provides an affirmation of optimism in most of the previously mentioned HK titles that is missing from the relentlessly downbeat “Nude Fear” as well as from all the Japanese titles reviewed here.  Vengeance, particularly of the intergenerational kind that seems to be a predominantly Japanese cinematic phenomenon, may be inimical to real intimacy.  Women exacting vengeance on behalf of their parents (“Yuki” in “Princess Blade,” “Ikko” in “Black Angel,” “Saki” in “Gun Crazy”) have an aura of madness that traces a direct lineage to “Lady Snowblood.”  This classic vengeance film is arguably one of the most influential titles of the genre, and its title even suggests an ironic play on the Japanese translation of “Snow White.”  In these narratives, the notion of honor is bound up with death rather than life.  Seeking death may indirectly affirm the life of those previously lost or, more abstractly, the worth of lost ideals (e.g., “Pistol Opera”).
Whereas the HK films considered here seem to focus on relatively nuanced attraction and desires, the driving force behind the Japanese titles is the dynamic of loyalty and betrayal.  The protagonists in three titles, “Princess Blade,” “Gun Crazy” and “Black Angel” seek filial vengeance on behalf of parents – long after the original crime, in emulation of the “Snowblood” formula.  Betrayal and double-crosses are the narrative engines of “Wild Criminal,” “Score 2” and “Pistol Opera.”  Several of these films present very critical portrayals of sexual assault or exploitation by men as further proximal fuel for retaliatory vengeance.  Almost without exception, the Japanese female protagonists in these titles display no romantic passion comparable to that of their HK counterparts.  Their characters’ concern is with death, not life.  In “Pistol Opera” “Stray Cat’s” autoeroticism mirrors her self-inflicted death.  Her gun is the instrument of both.  The bond of affection between “Tomoyo” and “Yuki” in “Wild Criminal” is unusual for a Japanese film of its type.  Just as “Bound” broke with the pessimistic conventions of noir to propose a possible self-defined future, “Wild Criminal” allows a relationship to develop against the odds.