A loose remake of the Japanese 1973 movie Shurayuki-Hime (itself based on a manga from the same year), Princess Blade is a stylishly made, occasionally spectacular but unremmitingly grim sci-fi swordplay yarn. It's set in an unspecified future, where law and order have broken down and the king's former blade-wielding assassins, the Takemikazuchi, operate as hitmen for hire. Their youngest member, Yuki (Yumiko Shaku), learns on her 20th birthday that she is the only one with pure Takemikazuchi blood, and that her mother was murdered when she was just five by Byakurai (Kyusaku Shimada), their current leader. A confrontation with Byakurai forces Yuki to go on the run, and soon she meets Takashi (Hideaki Ito), a mechanic and reluctant terrorist.
This is a film that takes itself very seriously indeed. At one point Takashi asks Yuki if she ever smiles... director Shinsuke Sato could be asked the same question. These characters may be surrounded by tragedy, pain and death, but a few laughs, no matter how black, never go amiss. Problem is, it's hard to feel much sympathy for them – Sato maintains a cold, distant tone throughout and the downbeat outcome is never in much doubt. Takashi is probably the most likable character – as well as the moral anguish he suffers about his terrorist activities, he has to look after autistic sister Aya, who was viscously attacked and gang-raped years before.
The film constantly hints at interesting ideas but frequently fails to realise them fully – it's never made clear exactly who Takashi is conducting his terror campaign against, and the history of the Takemikazuchi remains confused. No doubt the original comic book explained all this, but in his attempts to streamline his film, Sato leaves the narrative feeling distinctly under-nourished.
Sato makes the most of his budget – there's some impressive visuals and CGI'd futuristic landscapes, and the film does come alive during the Donnie Yen-choreographed swordplay sequences, which are blisteringly fast and thrillingly edited. But there's not enough of them, and the action-free middle 45 minutes really drags its heels. Decently crafted, but not always a great deal of fun.
Writer, director and games developer. Sato won the Grand Prix at Japan's Pia Film Festival in 1994 for his short film Tsukishima Kyoso, and went on to direct Seimon Mae Yuki, Love Song, the sci-fi actioner Princess Blade and manga adaptation Gantz. Also worked on the PlayStation 2 version of Namco's Tekken 4.