In a distant future that looks much like the present, Japan has again succumbed to a kind of neo-fascistic, feudalistic sociopolitical order. The Takemikazuchi, a once-prestigious warrior clan formerly responsible for guarding the rulers from rebel assault, now operates as a ronin-like band of assassins-for-hire, carrying out bloody executions in lightning raids, armed only with their trademark Samurai swords. Loyalty to the clan is absolute--disloyalty is punishable by death.
As the last of the true Takemikazuchi bloodline, Yuki (Yumiko Shaku) is the clan's heir apparent. But on her 20th birthday she discovers the dark secret of her mother's death many years earlier at the hands of the clan's present leader, Byakurai (Kyasaku Shimada). Swearing revenge, she fights her way free of the group's compound, eventually finding sanctuary with, of all people, a member of a clandestine rebel organization (Hideaki Ito).
The thing that is most immediately appealing about "Princess Blade" is that it deviates so markedly from what one would expect of a comparable American film. Not only is the story treated with utmost seriousness, betraying no hint of its comic origins, but the sacred American cows of pacing and plot are given a firm backseat to character. It goes without saying that extended monologues in which characters philosophize about their circumstances and life in general are not mainstays of American action films. Japanese films, however, almost mandate them. Impressively, the balance between the film's meditative pauses and its explosive swordfight scenes--magnificently choreographed by Hong Kong star Donnie Yen ("Shanghai Knights," "Hero")--could not be more effective. Each, in fact, seems to feed off the other, life and death encounters inseparably connected to a developing understanding of the meaning of life and death.
The subplot involving the young rebel Takashi isn't quite as well-integrated as the filmmakers might like, though it does serve to make the counterpoints needed for the film to have thematic resonance--unrighteous dominion versus righteous rebellion, love versus honor, obedience versus independence, etc. And at a brisk 92 minutes, such heady concepts offer the filmmakers more than enough substance to offset whatever issues Americans might have with pacing or plot.
Yet for all its intended seriousness, it's worth nothing that "Princess Blade" still manages to be exceptionally bloody. Violence of this sort is not uncommon in either Japanese or Hong Kong cinema, though Japanese films traditionally have less of an issue with overt sadism. That quality is again inculcated here, albeit appropriate to the context and in a fashion far less exploitative than the large-scale mayhem Hollywood considers so readily acceptable. Starring Yumiko Shaku, Hideaki Ito, Kyusaku Shimada, Yoichi Numata and Yoko Maki. Directed by Shinsuke Sato. Written by Kei Kunii and Shinsuke Sato. Produced by Taka Ichise. An ADV release. Action/Martial Arts. Japanese-language; subtitled. Rated R for strong violence. Running time: 92 min