Lady Snowblood (1973)

Lady Snowblood

Revenge is a very frequent theme in martial arts movies (not coincidentally it’s also a popular theme in westerns, a genre that both influenced and was influenced by Asian sword flicks), and one of the most interesting examples of vengeance with a sword is Lady Snowblood (Shurayuki-hime, Japan, 1973), directed by Toshiya Fujita and based on the manga of the same name written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Kazuo Kamimura.

The plot, like in many revenge stories, is simple. Four criminals murder a teacher and rape his wife. Many years later, her daughter, Yuki Kashima, aka Lady Snowblood, goes on a mission to find and kill the villains. But the movie is much more than that, adding interesting variations both in form (particularly in the nonlinear narrative) and theme (mainly in the unavoidable reflection on the rewards of revenge – or lack thereof).

Yuki is almost a revenge machine, conceived and trained to avenge her parents, but her trajectory, and even her successes, fail to offer satisfaction. One of the four villains is already dead when she starts her mission, killed by her mother (that’s how she ended up in jail, where Yuki was born). The first one she manages to track down is now an old man, drunk and impoverished by a gambling addiction, and killing him allows Yuki to cross one name from the list but doesn’t offer her a real sense of accomplishment, especially because of the unhappiness inflicted onto his daughter. The next villain is found to be dead, generating a sense of frustration that amplifies the sensation of futility that Yuki is already carrying. When she gets to her final adversaries, it’s clear that Yuki only continues with her mission because she doesn’t know how to do anything else, how to be anyone else than the unstoppable Lady Snowblood.

Yuki Kashima is played by Meiko Kaji, the action star from the outlaw biker film Alleycat Rock: Female Boss (1970) and the women prison film Female Convict 701: Scorpion (1972). Aesthetically, Lady Snowblood is clearly a product of the seventies, from the extreme zoom lens movements to the excessive amount of blood gushing from the victims of Yuki’s sword.

Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill was very much influenced by Lady Snowblood and it’s easy to find many elements in common between the two movies, including a female protagonist with a list of names targeted for vengeance, the narrative structured in chapters, some of the training sequences, and even the use of the same theme song Shura no Hana (The Flower of Carnage), sung by Meiko Kaji herself.

Dragon Gate Inn (1967)

The inn is an important place and a good fight location in many wuxia films, from old classics like Come Drink with Me to more recent and restyled pieces like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And sometimes it’s also a crucial plot device. A great example is Dragon Gate Inn (Long men kezhan, Taiwan, 1967), by King Hu. It marked the genre so much that it has already been remade twice: New Dragon Gate Inn (Sun lung moon hak chan, Hong Kong, 1992), by Raymond Lee, and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Long men fei jia, Hong Kong, 2011), by Tsui Hark.

A narrator introduces the story explaining that this is the year 1457 in China, early in the Ming dynasty, a time when many eunuchs held important government positions. One of them, the cruel Zhao Shao Qin (Pai Ying), executes his political adversary Yu Qian and exiles his children. Secretly, though, he plans to have the children killed as well, to prevent any of them to avenge their father, and sends his guards to murder them on the road. A stranger dressed in yellow stops and kills the four assassins with swift swordsmanship.

Zhao then sends a larger group of guards to ambush Yu’s children at the Dragon Gate Inn, but a few heroes are there to foil their plans. The innkeeper is revealed to be is Wu Ming (Cho Kin), an ex-officer from Yu’s army. The stranger in yellow turns out to be the son of another of Yu’s soldiers, and he is traveling with his sister, who by herself is capable of winning sword fights against several men at once. The three are joined by another skilled warrior, Xiao Shao Zi (played by Chun Shih, who would also star in King Hu’s next movie, the famous A Touch of Zen), who can catch knives with chopsticks, among other feats.

Dragon Gate Inn has several good fight sequences, in the same balletic style of other King Hu movies. And, as the villains keep failing to defeat the heroes, Zhao Shao Qin himself decides to join the action for one final climatic battle. The evil eunuch is such a powerful swordsman that he can face several of the heroes at once, which gives us a long and somewhat surprising final fight.

Even though the action scenes in Dragon Gate Inn may seem a bit naive in comparison with more recent martial arts choreography, the movie contains many of the elements that still inspire the genre, including the not so subtle subtext that comes with a story of selfless heroes fighting to defend children from powerful and corrupt government agents.

Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956)

Miyamoto Musashi is the most famous swordsman in Japanese history. He was born in the 16th century and died a sexagenary in the 17th century. He fought and won more than 60 duels. He created his own school of swordsmanship, “Niten Ichi Ryu” (“two heavens as one”). There are hundreds of books and movies and plays and graphic novels about him, but the ones that did the most to establish and solidify his fictional persona around the world are Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel Musashi (originally published in serialized form, from 1935 to 1939, on the pages of the prestigious Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun) and its best adaptation for the screen, the Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956), directed by Hiroshi Inagaki.

The movies are called Miyamoto Musashi (Miyamoto Musashi, 1954), Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Zoku Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijoji no ketto, 1955), and Duel at Ganryu Island (Miyamoto Musashi kanketsuhen: ketto Ganryujima, 1956), and the first one won an Academy Award for Foreign Language Film Winners.

Musashi is fiercely played in the three movies by Toshiro Mifune, one of the biggest stars of Japanese cinema. He was also one of the most prolific and well known for movies about swordsmen, including Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and The Hidden Fortress, just to mention a few he made with director Akira Kurosawa.

The trilogy starts with aftermath of the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which marks the beginning of the Tokugawa era in Japan. Among the survivors on the losing side was the teenager Takezo, who would later become known as Musashi. But at that point he was just a defeated and impoverished soldier who, carrying his injured his friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni), seeks shelter with a widow, Oko (Mitsuko Mito), and her daughter, Akemi (Mariko Okada), who live near the battlefield. Takezu eventually returns to his village, where is is antagonized by Matahachi’s mother (Eiko Miyoshi), who blames him for the disappearance of her son. Tensions escalate and Takezu ends up being hunted by half the village, under orders from the local lord. He is finally captured by the local priest, Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe), but escapes with some help from Matahachi’s former fiancee, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa). All these characters will reappear in the next movies, as their paths cross and recross with Takezu’s. At the end of the first movie, Takezu is recaptured by Takuan and imprisoned in a castle for three years. He spends this period in training and reflection, and emerges as a changed man, adopting the name of Miyamoto Musashi and starting on his travels in search of enlightenment.

The second and third movies show Musashi establishing his fame as the best swordsman in the country, as he goes around challenging and being challenged to duels with a variety of opponents. Not only his skill continues to grow but also his self-control, and while in his young years Musashi was quick to jump into a fight now even when provoked he is able to choose not to fight. In one amusing moment at an inn, a horse-dealer and his friends try to pick a fight but Musashi just looks at them and continues eating his noodles. Then he uses his chopsticks to catch a few flies in mid-flight, and the troublemakers dash away realizing they are no match for someone with such abilities. Almost thirty years later, The Karate Kid would include an homage to this scene, with Miyagi stating that “man who catch fly with chopstick accomplish anything”.

Another important character in the last part of the story is Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta), a real historic figure who at the time was also considered a a great swordsman. In the movies, he is a very confident young fighter who wants to test his skills against Musashi. One of his famous moves was called the swallow cut, demonstrated at the beginning of the third movie when Sasaki cuts a flying bird in half with one swift blow of his sword. The legendary fight between Musashi and Sasaki, on the beach at sunrise, closes the trilogy. The real duel happened on April 13, 1612 on Ganryujima (Ganryu Island), where today a statue shows both warriors in combat.

If you like long novels I heartily recommend the Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel. The translation I read came in two brick-shaped volumes and a total of 1,808 pages. It’s basically the same story from the movies, but with contextual information and many more details about Musashi’s life, from how his ideas on sword fighting were developed to personal quirks like his aversion to taking baths.

This Miyamoto Musashi trilogy is a great introduction to the chanbara genre, with an intense performance by the great Toshiro Mifune and skillful direction by Hiroshi Inagaki (who a couple of years later would win the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for Rickshaw Man, also with Mifune in the main role). You should watch it when you can. In the meantime, grab some chopsticks and try to catch a few flies.

Come Drink With Me (1966)

Come Drink With Me (1966)

If you’ve never seen a wuxia film, Come Drink With Me (Da zui xia, Hong Kong, 1966), directed by King Hu (using the name King Chuan), is a great introduction to the genre. It’s a classic from the 1960s with an uncomplicated plot, very entertaining action scenes, and many of the traditional elements of wuxia stories.

The film starts with a group of bandits attacking a caravan of soldiers and, after a bloody sword battle, capturing the son of the governor, a hostage they expect to trade for their leader, who has been imprisoned and is scheduled for execution. The person sent to negotiate with the bandits is a woman dressed as a man, none other than the governor’s daughter, known as Golden Swallow (interpreted by Cheng Pei-pei, who was the star of many martial arts movies in the 1960s and decades later became famous as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon).

The first confrontation between Golden Swallow and the bandits takes place in an inn, where Smiling Tiger Tsu Kan (Lee Wan-chung) and his men test her abilities. Wuxia heroes are often like superheroes, with superpowers related to reflexes and dexterity, and of course martial arts skills. A display of these capabilities can be used to flabbergast opponents (and to entertain audiences) and Golden Swallow doesn’t shy away from showing a few jaw-dropping tricks with some coins and chopsticks. After that she uses a pair of long daggers to quickly dispose of eight armed bandits. The fight scenes are very stylized, more dance than combat, but effective in establishing the heroine’s superiority and grace. That’s a recurring wuxia archetype, the nimble swordswoman who vanquish her enemies with efficacy and elegance.

Another very common character in wuxia fiction is the unassuming beggar who is actually a kung fu master in disguise. In Come Drink With Me, this role is filled by Fan Da-pei (Yueh Hua), aka Drunken Cat. He is a goofy singing and drinking beggar who travels around with a group of children (possibly including an uncredited 12-year-old Jackie Chan), and he saves Golden Swallow in more than one occasion. He also points her in the direction of the bandits hideout, where one of the best fight sequences of the movie takes place.

Golden Swallow confronts the bandits in the Buddhist temple were they are hiding, and has to face multiple opponents, including cosmetics-addicted villain Jade Faced Tiger (Chan Hung-lit), in a long fight that starts inside the temple and continues in the patio. After being poisoned by a dart, she escapes and is saved by Drunken Cat, who treats and shelters her. Their storylines turn out to be even more intertwined when it’s revealed that the abbott in charge of the bandit temple is his old nemesis Liao Kung (Yeung Chi-hing), who killed their master to steal a symbolic bamboo pole with a hanging gourd, now in Drunken Cat’s possession.

While Golden Swallow’s fights are based on physical prowess and sword skill, the clash between Drunken Cat and Liao Kung happens on a different level. They do exchange blows with their swords and staffs, but they also have a different weapon at their disposal. As one of the superpowers sometimes exhibited by wuxia heroes, they are capable of cultivating their internal energy (known as qi or chi) and externalizing it by projecting energy beams against each other (in Come Drink With Me, due to the limited visual effects capabilities of the 1960s, these energy beams look very much like jets of vapor coming out of their hands). So after Golden Swallow and her army of swordswomen confront Jade Faced Tiger and his bandits, it’s time for Drunken Cat and Liao Kung to have their final battle and determine who has the strongest chi and who will keep the sacred bamboo pole with the equally sacred hanging gourd.

Director King Hu (1932-1997) was a wuxia master, and Come Drink With Me (1966), together with Dragon Gate Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971), left a solid mark in the genre and influenced generations of movie makers.