My Breakthrough As a Movie Critic: My Review of 'The Princess Blade'
Your first professional credit is something you never forget.
This piece contains portions of a review I wrote of The Princess Blade for a long dead website as well as my scripted radio review from 2001 hence some of the past tense verbiage.
In 2001 I began my journey as a film critic with my first paid job. I was given a paid assignment to cover a local film festival. I was to write about as many of the movies as I could see and interview the organizers and generally be a full time film critic for the very first time. It was a big deal for me as I was a lowly part time producer on an FM Adult Contemporary radio station looking for a break. This review of The Princess Blade is one of four reviews I wrote as part of my first paid gig. I got my first full time job as a producer and reporter off the success of this review and so I went back and revisited The Princess Blade as part of a retrospective of my career as a film critic.
Whoever said “Never bring a knife to a gunfight” obviously had never seen a Japanese martial arts picture. In Japan, the sword is far mightier than the gun and the latest example of sword supremacy is the elegant female-centric The Princess Blade. Directed by Shinsuke Sato, the film’s most important credit is stunt coordinator Donnie Yen who elevates an overly pretentious bit of melodrama to beautiful tragedy with out-of-this-world fight choreography.
The Princess of the title is Yuki (Yumiko Shaku), the unknowing heir to the legendary assassin clan, The Takemikazuchi clan. Yuki kills as a second nature, she kills without emotion or pain even as she executes members of the clan who attempt to leave. Yuki has no idea that her late mother was the leader of the clan and that on her twentieth birthday she is to ascend to the leadership herself. That changes when she is visited by an old man named Kuka (Yoichi Namuta).
Kuka explains that he killed her mother himself at the behest of the clan’s current leader Byakurai (Kyasaku Shimada). Filled with rage, Yuki decides to leave the clan to plot a bloody revenge on Byakurai, a decision that will have her hunted by the clan. Her escape is aided by Kuka and unknowingly by a passing truck driver named Takashi whose truck is a convenient escape vehicle.
Takashi is himself an assassin, an anti-government rebel who turns to violence only when no other option exists. After the deaths of his family, violence is not something Takashi takes lightly. Takashi works for a shadowy anti-government figure named Kidokoro (Shiro Sano) who gives him assignments with the lame assurance that no one will be killed. There is an intimation that the Takemikazuchi and Kidokoro are on opposing sides but it's not explored.
Obviously Yuki and Takashi begin at odds and eventually fall into romance but writer-director Shinsuke Sato does his best to delay the obvious. The romance comes mostly at the film’s midsection and while it drags a bit and is heavy on pretentious close-ups, tortured gazes and heavy sounding dialogue, it's necessary for the awesome third act that is punctuated with killer sword fights and a tragic, unexpected ending.
Not to slight Mr. Sato's work, his visual palette is astounding, but it's clear that Donnie Yen is the man that makes The Princess Blade soar above so many other similar action films of the early 2000s. Yen, whose work you may recognize from Blade 2, and many of Jet Li's memorable fight scenes in less than stellar movies, here choreographed and edited all of the fight scenes in The Princess Blade as if he were directing the film himself. The combination of Mr Sato’s tremendous visual palette and Yen’s fight scenes are the main selling points of The Princess Blade.
The Princess Blade is an adaptation of the famed Manga Lady Snowblood, a beloved text that has remained a revered comic book story since its creation by writer Kazuo Koika and illustrator Kazuo Kammimura in 1972. The Manga was first adapted for the big screen less than a year after the Manga was released in 1973. That adaptation, also titled Lady Snowblood, was successful enough that a sequel was released in 1974 titled Lady Snowblood 2 Love Song of Vengeance, one of the single greatest titles of all time. Both of those films are now part of the Criterion Collection.
It’s rather surprising that it took until 2001 for another company to take on Lady Snowblood and that, at the time, a first time director like Shinsuke Sato was given the task. Since The Princess Blade, Sato has proven a reliable filmmaker who has worked steadily and has gone on to adapt some other beloved titles in Manga history including two adaptations of the popular Manga Death Note, a mini-series and a live action film, neither of which were well reviewed, and a live action adaptation of Bleach which received slightly better reviews in 2018.
The Princess Blade is lost to time for the most part. Few people recall the masterful visuals or Donny Yen’s immaculate fight scenes. That’s likely due in part to the fact that the rest of The Princess Blade is only modestly entertaining at best. The characters are thinly drawn, the motivations are basic, at best, and there is a humorlessness and pretension to The Princess Blade that almost guarantees its place as a niche product.
Nevertheless, the film will always be special to me because it helped make me who I am today. With the success of my coverage of The Princess Blade in 2001 and that long forgotten local film festival, I earned my professional place in radio and reporting. It would take another 7 years before I earned my spot as a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, but every journey begins with a step and The Princess Blade was one of my first steps.