The Princess Blade
Directed by Shinsuke Sato. Starring Hideaki Ito, Yumiko Shaku, Shirô Sano, Yoichi Numata, Kyusaku Shimada. (2003, NR, 92 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 3, 2003
The Princess Blade opens with one of the most note-perfect action sequences ever committed to film: five black-clad figures silhouetted atop a concrete plain. They rush forward, and with huge katana – samurai swords – glinting in the pale light, engage their hapless quarry, who fall like blades of wheat before a reaper’s scythe. The scene is under three minutes in length, but it seems to go on and on, with rapid cut after cut and jaw-dropping leap-kick-twist angles that thrust the audience into the thick of the melee. It’s only as director Sato pulls back from the carnage that we fully register the fact that the lead assassin is, in fact, a young girl, pageboy haircut whipping in her sword’s bloody back current. Welcome to the phenomenal action choreography of Donnie Yen. Yen is best known stateside as the man who engineered the superlative action in Guillermo Del Toro’s Blade II (and more recently Shanghai Knights), but genre fans will recall even more fondly his work on Iron Monkey. The Princess Blade rivals anything Yen has done in the past. Combined with Sato’s spare, lean direction and production design that seems drawn from someone else’s paranoid dream of a futuristic unplace, the film echoes in the mind long after you’ve exited the theatre. Yumiko Shaku plays Yuki, a young member of a wandering band of assassins who sell their impossible skills to the highest bidder. When she inadvertently discovers that the group’s leader Byakurai (Shimada) was the man who killed her mother (and that she is, indeed, a princess) she flees into a nearby forest as her former comrades follow in hot pursuit. She escapes, barely, and manages to find sanctuary in the home of a young man with a dark past of his own, Takeshi (Ito), where she’s nursed back to health before a final battle with her former allies. And that’s it. The story, from Kazuo Koike’s manga Shurayuki-Hime, feels nothing like the traditional Hollywood vengeance plot; like the swordplay of his gorgeous protagonist, Sato directs with a lean, clean sense of purpose. There’s zero fat on the bone, and everything here is direct and smooth and polished. This sense of unreality, almost surreality, is heightened by the absence of location: Where is this taking place? When is it taking place? Past, present, or future, no one says, although there are intimations of a futuristic war going on somewhere else, offscreen, perhaps in another film, or even another world. As the soundtrack thunders with the rippling thud of haru-kodo drumming, and Byakurai plots to extinguish both princess and blade, 20-year-old Yumiko Shaku imprints and indelible mark on the viewer: Feline grace with a feral streak, her perpetual pout wrapping around the occasional battle-shriek, she’s the poetry of warrior sex personified; it’s a beautiful, wild thing. Action directors take note: This is how it’s done.