What is the strange allure of the swordswoman figure in martial arts novels and movies?
Is it all just pulp garishness? A prolonged adolescent erotic fantasy hangover?
Then why is the swordswoman figure — whether she is blind, tattooed, one-armed, or merely disgraced, outcast, suffering and abused — always so melancholy, so wounded, so tragic?
Listen to these painfully beautiful last lines intoned by a narrator at the end of CRIMSON BAT: THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN (1969, aka BLIND OICHI STORY: RED BIRD OF FLIGHT): “Oichi went away on the cold wintery wind, carrying with her her sword-cane and a great deal of loneliness . . . her sightless eyes filled with tears.”
As for me, I wrote my novel OSAI’S RAZOR (here it is in the Kindle format) to tell the story of a swordswoman in old Japan whose life was almost unbearably harsh. Osai Itto’s story came to me in great, blazing and silent images. I found it, and her, irresistible.
And I wrote the final sentence blinded by tears.
The inspiration to begin writing the “Akiko” series came to Okamoto through reading Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, CASINO ROYALE. “What sort of human being would I want to write a series of crime/thriller novels about? Who could keep me so deeply fascinated that I would want to write the adventures of an entire lifetime?”
And there, popping up out of nowhere, was the image of a beautiful but melancholy, starkly blue-eyed half-Japanese half-Caucasian woman boarding a ferry to take her to a remote island on the Sea of Japan. The story of “Akiko” arose from that moment and unfolded itself in terse stages. It was the birth of lonely ex-assassin Molly Vance.
The ferry that sets out for Kamijima from the main island is a small and rickety and paint-peeling launch with a clanging engine, a single smokestack, and room for about thirty passengers. It runs once every two days. It does not carry automobiles, though some of the tourists bring aboard bicycles or motorscooters.
On that morning in June a pale young woman, wearing a white linen suit and sunglasses and thin leather sandals, her lips coated with red lipstick of a shade so dark it was almost black, boarded the ferry with two heavy black calfskin leather luggage bags; she hauled them across the wobbling gangplank by herself, one in each hand, over the gibbering objections and complaints of the little brown ferryman who tried in vain to take hold the straps and wrest the bags away from her. She carried them without any seeming effort and once onboard she slumped on a bench, in a space that mysteriously cleared for her, the heavy bags at her feet, and without any fuss lit a cigarette and smoked it staring at the Sea of Japan.
Blue-green water boiled white behind the engine and with much clanking and a muffled roar as a boy in shorts and an oil smudged t shirt tossed the heavy frayed bow and stern ropes back onto the deck and a puff of black smoke and the stink of diesel the boat shuddered deeply and turned in the water and pointed its prow toward the low and distant outline of Kamijima then began to slide and jolt away from shore. The woman flicked her cigarette overboard and crossed her arms over her chest, as if already feeling the cold. She rubbed her shoulders.
She seemed to enjoy being out on the water, away from the heat and clamor of the city, and as the dark hair flew over her face in the salt-laced wind she was taking in everything, alert with all her senses, exuberant even.
One might have thought she was coming to life again . . .
He’s also a fine crime writer, given to terse descriptions of gritty and dark Grand Guignol violence. As in his novel: SLAMMER.
Allan Guthrie is rather adamant that no character in a noir novel should be sympathetic. He himself pulls this off brilliantly, somewhat like James M. Cain but with buckets rather than squibs of blood.
My own feelings are somewhat different. If I can’t sympathize with its protagonist, a book usually doesn’t cut very deep. Avoiding empathy, one risks writing what amount to mere manifestos of gore and academic exercises in mayhem.
I want to put you there and make you feel the action in a hair-raising way. This includes the risk of falling in love with a character who might be ill-fated, even doomed.