“Lady Snowblood” was, until the recent “Kill Bill” by Tarantino, a relatively obscure 1973 female samurai revenge film. However, since the inclusion of the songs “Flower of Carnage” and “Urami-Bushi” (both sung by lead actress Meiko Kaji) on the soundtracks to both of Tarantino’s films, and his citing of it as one of his main influences, both the classic original and the slightly inferior sequel (“Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance”) have earned new releases and retrospectives.
Fans of modern Japanese cinema will be quite used to seeing sword-slinging female killers in films such as “Azumi” and “The Princess Blade”, though “Lady Snowblood” as both a film and a character is still very much the standard by which all others must be measured. Beautifully directed, action packed and very violent, it contains more memorable scenes and characters than most of its imitators put together. Hopefully, the success of “Kill Bill” will inspire viewers not only to watch “Lady Snowblood”, but to appreciate it not simply as a curio piece, but as an excellent, and indeed superior, film in its own right.
The plot, set during a historical period of political unrest in Japan, is revenge, pure and simple. After her husband is murdered, a woman is accused of being a spy and thrown into jail. Consumed by rage, she sleeps with every man she can, with the bloody-minded aim of producing a child who will enact her revenge. Dying in childbirth, the woman gives life to Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji), who becomes Lady Snowblood, the living embodiment of vengeance. Twenty years later, having dedicated her life to deadly martial arts training, Yuki sets forth on her quest, swearing that she will not rest until she has slaughtered the villains who wronged her mother.
Apart from the use of the theme song, the influence of “Lady Snowblood” on Tarantino’s revenge films is blatantly obvious, with similar training sequences, set pieces and even a voiceover-heavy narrative that is divided into chapters. This is fair enough. I have nothing at all against Tarantino or his films, and this is the only mention I’ll make on the subject of homage, inspiration, rip offs, or whatever.
Lady Snowblood herself is a fascinating character. Although purportedly an instrument of death and violence, the film gives her a welcome injection of personality and emotion, both of which serves to make her bloody quest more interesting. Though her background is tragic and traumatic, the film makes clear that it’s her dead mother’s revenge she is carrying out, and not her own, allowing for moments of self-doubt and uncertainty. Similarly, although she is a highly skilled killer, she is far from invincible, and this allows the viewer to sympathize with her, if not identify. It helps that Meiko Kaji is excellent, making the role her own with an intense performance that at times conveys a tangible sense of barely contained violence through the smallest of actions.
“Lady Snowblood” benefits from its historical setting and the attention paid to the political nuances of the time period. The film has a voiceover by a journalist named Ashio (Toshio Kurosawa, from the classic “Water Margin”), who is investigating Yuki, and he provides plenty of social commentary on the great changes that swept the country at the time. As well as giving the film an interesting and realistic grounding, this allows for a few moments of sly humor that lighten the mood somewhat. Since the film has a fairly slow pace between the fight scenes, this is very welcome and keeps things moving along nicely.
The direction by Toshiya Fujita (relatively unknown in the West apart from the “Lady Snowblood” films) is excellent and at times beautiful. The film boasts a rich color scheme, predominantly using deep red and cold white, usually in the form of the film’s common motifs of blood and snow. The cinematography is gorgeous, and although the film does at times look low budget, it provides an evocative and atmospheric look at ancient Japan.
The action scenes are excellent and well shot, relying on short bursts of swordplay rather than extended martial arts battles. The action is tense and exciting, and usually drenched in geysers of spraying red. “Lady Snowblood” is a very violent film, and there is a great deal of hacking, slashing and dismemberment, which is bound to please fans of the genre.
“Lady Snowblood” is a classic, and deserves to be recognized far beyond its value as an inspiration to the films of Tarantino. It offers fans of martial arts and samurai films plenty of action, a beautiful, tragic heroine, and a gripping tale of revenge, all set against a fascinating historical backdrop. Though I’m sure we will see countless more ‘female samurai’ films, I’m equally sure that “Lady Snowblood” will stand the test of time far better than any of them.
Toshiya Fujita (director) / Kazuo Uemura, Kazuo Koike (screenplay)
CAST: Meiko Kaji …. Yuki Kashima
Toshio Kurosawa …. Ryuurei Ashio
Miyoko Akaza …. Sayo Kashima
Masaaki Daimon …. Gou Kashima