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Princess Blade

Japan (2001), 92 minutes
Starring: Hideaki Ito, Yumiko Shaku, Shiro Sano, Yoichi Numata
Reviewer: Teri Tom
Genre: Martial Arts, Science Fiction
Rating: 3.5

I’ll admit that I went into Princess Blade prepared to dislike it thanks to those godawful-baggy-around-the-ankles-Levi’s-experiment-gone-wrong costumes on the jacket cover. But I’m happy to say that, in this case, you can’t always judge a film by its one sheet.The setting is post-apocalyptic Japan 500 years into the future. By placing the story in a land that time forgot, the writers have cleverly justified the use of swords over guns and technology. Members of the House of Takemikazuchi, once protectors of the ruling monarchs, have been exiled to a region left behind by modern civilization and have been reduced to assassins for hire. Yuki, the Takemikazuchi’s top dog assassin, learns that her mother was murdered by the house’s leader, Byakurai. After failing to exact revenge, Yuki seeks refuge from the Takemikazuchi with the help of a young insurrectionist played by Hideaki Ito.

The tone of Princess Blade is quite somber, and while some have criticized Yumiko Shaku (Yuki) and Hideaki Ito (Takaski) for turning in bland performances, I think their work is exactly what this film calls for. If anything, I’d say things could have been turned down a notch near the ending. And for a mega-Asian pop star, Shaku does a great job. Lurking under the emotionally numbed, trained killer is a girl who misses her mother, and Shaku pulls it off quite well. Our wannabe-actor popsters in this country could certainly take a lesson or two from her.

Visually, Princess Blade is all muted blue and green and gray. Swordplay takes place in lush forests during twilight. The fight scenes, choreographed by Hong Kong martial arts veteran Donnie Yen, are a refreshing change. No overblown wirework, and except for one scene early on, no Matrix-like CGI. I would have liked to have seen some more variation in the pacing of those fights, but again, they look a helluva lot better than anything I’ve seen recently. Much has been made of this film’s marriage of Japanese aesthetics and Hong Kong action, and they do make for a nice match. The overall pacing is rare for an action film and also a refreshing change. It’s not all action, all the time. There’s a lot of thoughtful, quiet downtime between fights.

Based on a hit manga series, Princess Blade indeed plays out like a comic book. No great shakes plot-wise or message-wise (although there is an attempt) – just good solid acting, atmospherics, choreography, and a lot of heart. Now if we could just do something about those clothes.