What’s in a name? There’s so many ways to title a film, from the clever (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), the artistic (The Wages of Fear), the nonsensical (Brazil is an amazing film, but what the title has to do with anything I’ll never know), to the downright direct. It’s this style of title I may very well like the best. With films like Alien, Terminator, Robocop, and Seven Samurai, you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. That’s precisely the case with Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood, which delivers everything the title promises and more.
The film opens in astonishing fashion, as we meet Yuki Kashima doing what she does best: expertly killing a hapless group of samurai. It’s fitting that this bloodshed is taking place during heavy snowfall, as Yuki is better known as the assassin Lady Snowblood. She’s doing the work for a clan of vagrants led by a man named Matsuemon. Yuki believes that Matsuemon can help her locate 3 individuals with whom she holds a grudge. Through a flashback, we’re shown that these three (along with a fourth, who is already dead) took advantage of those that opposed a newly mandated military draft by promising them that their sons would be exempt if they paid them a sum of money. At the same time, there was a paranoia spreading in the local village of men dressed in white that worked for the new government and would kill anyone up for the draft.
Unfortunately, Yuki’s soon-to-be mother’s husband, new to the village, is unaware of this and is caught wearing a white suit. He’s subsequently killed by the 4 bandits, as is their son. Yuki’s mother, Sayo, is raped and brought along by one of the bandits once they take off with the villager’s money. Sayo bides her time, and eventually kills the man, but is caught and taken to prison. Now unable to extract her revenge on the remaining three bandits, Sayo seduces the male guards at the prison, in hopes of becoming pregnant. She eventually does, and on an appropriately snowy evening, gives birth to a girl whom she names Yuki. Her only desire is to have the child carry out her vengeance, and she explains the entire ordeal to her cellmates before dying.
One of these women, Otora Mikazuki, is released from prison and takes care of Yuki, along with a man named Dokai, who puts her through rigorous training to become a competent assassin and Samurai. As she grows up, she learns more of the plight of her mother, and the burden put squarely on her shoulders since birth is revealed to her. The path of being an assassin leads her to the previously mentioned Matsuemon, who does agree to help her locate the 3 remaining individuals she seeks. God help them if he does, as their fate will be nothing less than a bloodbath.
Based on Kazuo Koike’s three volume Manga series of the same name, you’ll be hard pressed to find many similarities between the two outside of the lead character and her quest for vengeance. While the Manga does eventually get into the storyline told in the film, the overall tone of the story falls much more in line with what we’ve come to expect from the Pinky Violence genre, with films such as Sex & Fury and Bohachi Bushido closer in tone. In the Manga, the aspect in which Yuki is mostly shown is that of an assassin, hired by various clan leaders to take out their opposition. She’s also not afraid to use her sex as a weapon, and is an experienced gambler. In fact, Norifumi Suzuki’s Sex & Fury borrows liberally from the Manga; the spectacular nude swordfight that opens the film is actually the opening of the Manga as well. It’s clear that Toho wasn’t too keen on the more outrageous aspects of the source material (even their true-blue Pinky Violence series, Rica, is much tamer than most), and Toei, a studio not afraid of anything, was more than happy to pick up the unused elements.
This is only a small gripe however, as the film comes off very well, with its roots still firmly planted in the exploitation genre, and it still compliments the Manga very nicely. While you won’t get the nudity present in the source material, you will get some of the raw violence and bloodletting including a phenomenally satisfying ending. One of the added aspects of the film that comes off very well is a writer, named Ryûrei, who is introduced mid-way through the film and is interested in documenting Yuki’s exploits. This gives a unique view that many of these films lack; that of an outsider that isn’t really involved with either side. Generally, we’re left seeing two sides when viewing a film, one from the protagonists and one from the antagonists. Having this third view, and having it come from a character that has more substance than just being a secondary player, gives the film a fresh feel.
Anyone that doubts the films influence on cinema need not look further than Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. Lady Snowblood is much more than just an influence, as elements of the film are transplanted directly and indirectly into Tarantino’s film. The quest for revenge is an obvious one, but there’s also the fact that the revenge is being taken care of systematically, having to track down each individual wrong-doer. There’s also the case of both Yuki and The Bride going through grueling training to become proficient in the art of assassination, albeit the former is born into the world of vengeance and is trained from birth. Those willing to look deeper will see that the film inspired an entire slew of female-centric Japanese revenge films, from Azumi to The Princess Blade, and even non-Japanese fare such as Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45. It’s unquestionably debatable whether the Poisonous Seductress series was the inspiration for many of the female-themed Samurai films of Japan (and Lady Snowblood itself), but when it comes to anything outside of the country, Snowblood is the obvious creative spark used by many.
Meiko Kaji is once again more than up to the task of taking on the role of Yuki. In all actuality, her performance here is very much an extension of Matsu from the Female Prisoner Scorpion series. While she has much more dialogue to work with, she still conveys much of her emotions through stoic looks and fiery eyes. Just like Matsu, Yuki is a manifestation of vengeance and will go through any hell to achieve it. It’s this aspect where I find my one and only problem with the film. Yuki has never personally experienced any atrocity; this all stems from her mothers pain. I find it odd that she never rebels against being nothing more than an instrument of revenge, having her entire life mapped out before her from the day she entered the world. I guess you could look at it as amazing discipline and conviction, but I still personally feel there could have been some doubt within her directed at what she’s been bred for.
Visually, the film is very nice, although there isn’t the huge amount of artistic panache that’s found in many Pinky Violence films. Like the overall tone of the film, the directorial style is restrained and played out more for realism, making it much more akin to Samurai and Chanbara films. This was certainly a conscious effort from director Toshiya Fujita, as he cut his teeth in the Pinky Violence genre, directing two of the five Stray Cat Rock films, and thus he could have easily infused the film with the flair many of these films are known for. Choosing to go the way he did though probably attracting a more mainstream audience and it does help the film stand out from the pack.
You don’t need to be a Pinky Violence fan to enjoy Lady Snowblood. Anyone that enjoys a compelling revenge tale full of top-notch storytelling and action will find much to appreciate. It’s really here that Meiko Kaji fully cements her legacy as one of the top leading ladies in all of Japanese exploitation cinema, and it’s a great history lesson for those interested in highly influential cinema. Lady Snowblood is a bloody good path of destruction and redemption that you’ll be happy having taken a walk down.
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