It’s probably wise not to expect too much from a movie based on a manga comic book, or even if it has that manga-inspired feel to it. The Japanese action movie “Versus” and the Hong Kong film “A Man Called Hero” prove this notion out. Maybe in their original forms (if one existed) the stories had a deeper meaning, even a more extensive background. But in movie form, too many subplots and exposition are hopelessly condensed — or just missing altogether, giving the feeling of incompleteness.
“Princess Blade” stars Yumiko Shaku as Yuki, the last heir to a troupe of elite assassins who still uses swords instead of modern weapons. Although the assassin Byakurai (Kyusaku Shimada) is in command of the gang, it’s Yuki and her bloodline that the rest of the gang honors. But when Yuki learns that Byakurai was responsible for killing her mother, who had wanted to dissolve the organization for good, Yuki flees her former comrades. She finds shelter with Takashi (Hideaki Ito), a footsoldier in a terrorist movement determined to bring change to the present government. After some mutual distrust, Yuki and Takashi eventually comes to depend on each other, but of course, the past is not easily abandoned…
True to its pedigree, “Princess Blade” is high on style. Act One is all action, as Yuki discovers Byakura’s secret, tries to kill him, fails, and flees with the rest of her gang in pursuit. Act Two pulls a fast one and lowers the action level to almost none; it’s really a 20-minute interlude where Yuki and Takashi learn to come to terms with their past and discover their commitment to each other and a future without bloodshed. Act Three brings the action back to the forefront, ending the film in a flurry of blood and slashing swords.
The action in “Princess Blade” was choreographed by Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen (“Iron Monkey”), whose signature is all over the swordplay and high-flying stunts. Although much of “Princess” is kept ground-leveled, the use of wireworks does creep in every now and then. For the most part the action is very exciting, and there are two scenes that just scream brilliance. One is early in the film when Yuki battles a gun-wielding would-be-target who fires his gun at her; director Shinsuke Sato shoots the sequence in a way that the camera shakes as each bullet slams home — this, while Yuki is spinning in the air and deflecting bullets with her sword. Good stuff.
Despite its good points, “Princess Blade” nevertheless feels incomplete. Takashi’s story, in particular, seems grossly thin. The whole subplot about Takashi’s involvement with a shadowy and untrustworthy terrorist organization feels short-changed, and I would have liked to see Takashi do more than just talk about what he’s done, and what the organization plans to do. There’s no action, no “showing” — there’s just a lot of “telling.” As most screenwriters are taught very early on, when writing action you should “show, not tell.”
The film’s Act Two, which could have been problematic in a film sold as an action movie, is actually very welcomed. Shaku and Ito plays off each other well, and their relationship as two wounded souls hoping for a chance at a better tomorrow, is easy to cheer for. The violent Act Three, when it finally comes to break up the ray of light established by the peaceful Act Two, effectively shatters our slim hope for our two main characters. Yumiko Shaku deserves praise as the sword wielding Yuki, who kills because she’s never been taught to do anything else. And Hideaki Ito compliments her with his hesitant and emotionally wounded Takashi.
Alas, I wanted to know more about the world that the characters inhabit. Besides one CGI-created scene where Takashi drives through a cityscape, the bulk of the film takes place in the countryside. There are many sequences in a forested area, which could be just about anywhere in the world. There were a lot of questions that I asked that weren’t answered, and one of them was this: What kind of world is this that makes Takashi and his fellow terrorists want to change so much they’re willing to blow people up to do it? There is a brief radio segment featuring propaganda nonsense by “the State”, but that’s not nearly enough to give us a firm grasp on the “world” of “Princess Blade.”
I wanted more, but there was not more coming. At just 90 minutes, it’s easy to guess that a lot was chopped off for pacing. Which makes me wonder if there’s a longer version available — a sort of Director’s Cut. If there were, it would certainly be worthwhile to seek out.
Shinsuke Sato (director)
CAST: Hideaki Ito …. Takashi
Yumiko Shaku …. Yuki
Yoichi Numata …. Kuka
Kyusaku Shimada …. Byakurai
Yoko Maki …. Aya