“You were born for vengeance…such a poor child.”
Toshiya Fujita’s film of revenge and expressionism has been heavily influential not only with modern jidai-geki films but with modern films in general. The hallucinatory structure of the tale is told in chapters, with flashbacks and lapses in time. Typically, this kind of presentation is purely cosmetic, but here it is strangely fitting.
Yuki is a deadly swordswoman whose life, it seems, was predestined for retribution. Her father and brother were murdered by a band of criminals (Banzo, Gishiro, Okono, and Tokuichi) before she was born and her mother (Sayo) imprisoned for murdering her abductor, Tokuichi. She devises a plan to have a son who can wreak vengeance on the remaining three criminals. Sayo is impregnated by one of the guards and gives birth to Yuki but dies shortly after. This is where the film begins and so the audience follows Yuki’s path of vengeance (accompanied by a trail of blood of course). From a child she is trained by the priest, Dokai, to be emotionless. She begins her journey on her twentieth birthday and renames herself Shurayuki. The film takes place during the Meji era when westernization was a young but feral beast. This tumultuous time period is significant to the story. Because of the governmental sanction, “men in white” were sent to enforce the conscription of individuals into the service of the emperor. People grew to fear these men in white and would pay criminals to murder them. Indeed, Shurayuki’s father (a schoolteacher) was innocently wearing white when he was murdered. “It could be said that Karma can stain the unborn,” Shurayuki tells a man she needs information from. In order to enact retribution, she must indulge the whims of her informants. For instance, to find Banzo, she kills a crime boss for Lord Matsuemon.
There is also another interesting character, a reported named Ryurei Ashio. He meets her for the first time by means of his curiosity and an unspecified feeling that there is something unusual about the mysterious woman in white. He questions her incessantly and later prints her story as a fictional adventure tale. This lures Okono from her hiding place later in the film. Ashio continues to play an integral part in the story, but even he is unable to flee the broad sweep of vengeance. And this is the central theme of the film: violence begets violence and vengeance only creates more victims. The side story of Ashio and Banzo’s daughter, Kobue, are prime examples of this. The ending of the film is wonderfully symbolic and subversive, taking place in a European-styled masquerade ball.
Fujita decides to remain neutral in his depiction of Shurayuki. While her motives are pure, her actions are little different than the criminals she’s killing. The way the story is told, episodic piece by episodic piece, incorporates a great layering technique that maintains the interest of the audience. The cinematography, art direction, editing and direction are flawless. Kanji as Shurayuki delivers an effortless performance, capturing the “child of the netherworld” perfectly. This is a film that paints in expansive, Grunewaldian strokes of emotional distortion, but majesty is often accompanied hand-in-hand with destruction. The film presents an interesting slant on the Karmic cycle, particularly on how women are continual victims of misfortune. Shurayuki herself cannot escape it and this is the tragic reality of those who seek vengeance.