LADY SNOWBLOOD (1973)
(Directed by Toshiya Fujita)
(Written by Norio Osada)
(Starring Meiko Kaji, Toshio Kurosawa and Eiji Okada)
Plot: Yuki (Meiko Kaji) was born to be an instrument of revenge, trained exclusively to locate and kill those who preyed upon her Mother and murdered the remainder of her would-be family. Also known as “Shurayukihime“.
Isn’t it strange how opinions can change within the span of a few years? My cinematic tastes must evolve…or perhaps mutate…on a yearly basis, because “Lady Snowblood” coldly assassinated nearly every complaint I had with the movie back when I first saw it in 2010. My original review bled geysers of blood upon me revisiting Toshiya Fujita’s cult classic, rendering it so obsolete that I am forced to write a new one- although my tendency to masquerade name dropping as substantial criticism meant I would’ve had to redo everything anyway. I had liked “Lady Snowblood” during my initial viewing, but I think I only enjoyed it on a superficial level, believing it to be exploitation packaged as art. I was paying so much attention to the violence, sex and style that I overlooked the depth to be found within the story, characters and visuals. A more apt description of “Lady Snowblood” would be ‘art packaged as exploitation’, which is almost baffling when you consider its origins. Director Toshiya Fujita had been previously known for helming ‘Pink films’, a style of erotica that boasted a level of respectability lacking in the (western) porn industry, thanks to superior acting, cinematography, direction, etc. He had been selected to direct a live action adaptation of Kazuo Koike’s “Lady Snowblood” manga, which is just… porn. I know that many fans of the comic will take issue with my claim, but I have actually read the manga and it seemed like every chapter was designed around Yuki getting naked and/or being put in a fetishist position of vulnerability. Yet the filmmakers chose to downplay the titillation and sleaze to such an extent that they cast Meiko Kaiji in the titular role, a ‘Pink’ actress who had a reputation for refusing to get naked in a genre that practically requires you to get naked. While the ‘pink’ elements are still in the movie, the focus is really on the striking imagery (which the graphic violence is a part of), deconstructing the vengeance formula and the psychological collapse of a very tragic woman…while she’s cutting people in half…Don’t let all of this fancy, artsy terminology fool you, as “Lady Snowblood” never goes long without someone suffering a very bloody death, but it manages to weave substance into its action. Hence, ‘art packaged as exploitation’.
“Lady Snowblood” makes sure that every single image resonates with the viewer, whether aesthetically, emotionally or both. There are a variety of gorgeous locales, ranging from dilapidated villages to thriving cities and the time period (Meiji Era; when the West began its influence on Japan) gives the film a visual uniqueness. I thought the changing of the seasons was a brilliant touch, as it provides many different flavors of eye candy. The colors are all vibrant, even to the point of expressionistic exaggeration and contrast beautifully with each-other. The blood is very red and its mating with the stark white snow or chaotic blue ocean is hypnotic. Even the little details, such as Yuki’s purple umbrella, manage to be eye popping without distracting you from the remainder of the composition. The director embodies everything cool about Japanese cinema during the 1970’s, experimenting with new visual flourishes (seamlessly weaving pages from the manga into the narrative) and perfecting established techniques (the use of slow motion). There is a lot of hallucinogenic lighting, which can give a relatively surreal and sinister edge to an otherwise trivial scene. Yet it never gets lost in its own self indulgence, balancing the panoramic and showy style with more intimate, hand held camerawork designed to focus on Yuki’s expressions during the battles. I liked how the rape was presented as horrific and surprisingly unexploitive, making the viewer very uncomfortable. Even the consensual sex has an eerie vibe thanks to the atmospheric lighting and sound, which perfectly supports the context. The violence is part of the films visual style, with the deaths being so meticulously staged that they become part of the background or foreground, as if we’re seeing a live action painting. Even Yuki’s posturing is framed to reflect the carnage she is unleashing upon her victims and yes, the (bright red) blood and her white outfit/pale skin make excellent bedfellows. There is a significant amount of symbolism, but it’s very understated, allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusions about what it means. Furthermore, if you overlook or choose to ignore the symbolism, the viewing experience won’t be negatively impacted because there is so much more to enjoy. The choreography is probably one of the weaker aspects surrounding “Lady Snowblood“, primarily because Meiko Kaji looks somewhat uncomfortable with the blade. I had difficulty buying her (literally) clashing swords with much larger men, when she should be using her speed and technique to get the best of them. But the editing and camerawork make up for most of her shortcomings and her fights are assimilated into the directors’ visual style.
But the external beauty of “Lady Snowblood” had impressed me during my first viewing, so what changed during Round 2? This time, I found myself primarily paying attention to Yuki and the exploration of her character. She is surprisingly complex, undergoing a strong arc without using dialogue to explain how she’s changing throughout the course of the film. She was only born to finish her Mother’s quest for vengeance, so has spent her entire life mentally and physically preparing to kill those who were indirectly responsible for her existence. At first glance, she seems obsessive towards her quest and aloof towards everything else, as if she has become exactly what her Mother wanted. But we slowly realize that she is trying- and arguably failing- to suppress her own humanity in the process. When she meets the daughter of one of her targets, she’s visibly conflicted about what she is about to do and even offers to help the girl- revealing a vulnerability that would later on come back to haunt her. Meiko Kaji is excellent when it comes to looking fierce and menacing, but she also is given a lot of room to explore the dynamics of Yuki’s personality. When things go wrong, the camera focuses on her face and we can see how panicked she is, without ever causing the character to lose her bad-ass aura. Even though she has been trained to handle every situation, she’s makes very human mistakes and she can’t always control the circumstances surrounding her. What happens if a target dies before she can get to them? What if they choose to take their own lives first? The anger she feels when these types of events occur makes sense, because if she doesn’t kill them herself, her entire life has been invalidated. I love how the narrative focuses on these internal struggles, which is something I felt the manga lacked. The source material presents Yuki as an invincible goddess of death. Even when placed in vulnerable positions, it’s always part of her plan, so the stakes never feel high because we never believe she’s in danger. She never seems to doubt herself or have any problems with ruining (or sometimes ending) lives caught in the crossfire of her vengeance. This makes her a boring character, but the “Lady Snowblood” movie explores what it beneath her frosty exterior and we can feel tension because this version of Yuki is an actual human. In the source material, Yuki has a very inconsistent characterization, regretting killing the guy who was trying to RAPE her just because of his (marginally) sad backstory, but forcing two civilians to have sex with each-other before killing them because that was convenient for her strategy…yeah…F@ck that nonsense. “Lady Snowblood” (the movie) shrouds Yuki in moral ambiguity, but it’s easy to sympathize with her, because…well, she isn’t forcing civilians to have sex with each-other before killing them…That sort of goes a long way with making a character likable…
I had previously complained about the reliance of flashbacks, which I felt hurt the pacing, but now I find myself agreeing with how the narrative used them. If they were omitted, the story would lose at least some of its power and if they were shown in chronological order, I think Yuki would lose some of her mysteriousness. The love story was very weak and quite frankly, was probably shoehorned into the story to avoid any implications that Yuki is a lesbian (which she is in the manga). I actually thought the actor (Toshio Kurosawa) was very charismatic though and wish they did more with the character and his relationship with our heroine. I’ve made it clear that I believe the film is superior to the manga, but there were still a few changes I disliked. For example, the movie has her (male) mentor and (male) love interest concocting the plan to publish a novel based on Yuki’s life in order to lure out one of her targets. In the source material, it is Yuki who has this idea and while I’d hate to accuse a movie about a blade slinging swordswoman of being misogynistic, Yuki does spend a lot of time waiting for the men around her to gather information and come up with all the strategies…I also wish manga-Yuki’s acting abilities were adapted for the screen, as it would’ve been interesting seeing her turn up the charm, act seductive and shed convincing-but-fake tears to contrast her cold personality. I would say this last point is more of a missed opportunity than a criticism though. But in the end, I found “Lady Snowblood” to be a highly entertaining swordplay flick that also works as a strong character story and a study in film composition. The artistry and elegance within the visuals, editing and music are so captivating that they upstage the gruesome content- which on its own is pretty awesome. I love that despite Yuki’s competence, the universe keeps getting in the way of her quest for vengeance, something which doesn’t happen very often within this genre. There is a lot of unique content and Yuki is a unique heroine, as even her imitators usually only copy her cold blooded dimeanor and MAYBE her appearance. Much like “Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance“, “Lady Snowblood” only got better upon second viewing…So watch it and then watch it again. It’s awesome.
Violence: Rated R. Very bloody!
Nudity: There is sex and rape, but it’s shot rather tastefully and even…artfully? The only offensive moment for me was when we see child nudity, although Japan has very different standards on that issue.
Overall: “Lady Snowblood” works on almost every level, providing an intriguing story, an even more intriguing protagonist and the most intriguing visuals imaginable. Watch it and watch it again.
DISCARDED MATERIAL (the original review)
-Note from Author: This was actually a better example of what I could do in 2010, which depresses me as it’s not very good. I’ve also changed my opinions, so it’s irrelevant anyway.
I’ve been meaning to watch ”Lady Snowblood“ for quite some time, but I’ve always been reluctant. I tend to watch a lot of my Samurai films with my Father, and I had read some of the manga. I figured the movie would be softcore porn in the vain of ”Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice“, where the titled sword refers to the characters penis. I don’t want to have to watch that with my parents again! But my Uncle gave a glowing review of the film and I kept hearing about how this was the female equivalent to ”Lone Wolf and Cub”. So eventually it found my way into the DVD player and not only was it not softcore porn, it was actually a pretty good samurai opus. Its flaws are glaring, but its strengths made up for them.
Yuki (Meiko Kaji) opens the film revealing her badass sword skills when she kills a gang leader, referring to herself as Lady Snowblood. She has been born for vengeance, killing the man to curry favor with a bandit, whose resources can help her find two men and a woman, all of whom participated in the rape of her mother and the murder of her (would be) ‘father’. Her older (kid) brother was killed too, but no one cares about that. We learn that Yuki’s Mother killed the fourth gang member before being arrested. She proceeded to sex up anyone who visited the place in order to have a child. She dies at childbirth, but the child ended up being Yuki. Yuki trained with an expert warrior and became immensely skilled, and now plans on using those skills for vengeance.
The films major strength is its gorgeous photography and excellent camerawork. Everything about this movie screams ‘artistic’. I was concerned that the movie would be sleazy, and while it certainly comes close to being so ( featuring sex, gang rape, child nudity and..well, that s it), it always treats it…artfully, as cheesy as that sounds. The gang rape is shown to be horrific, with little nudity and loads of symbolism. When we see the Mother trying to conceive Yuki, it s a very interesting montage. The blood spurts may be overdone, but the scenes of Yuki covered in blood (with her pale skin and white robe) are almost surreal. Blood and snow just go together, and ”Lady Snowblood” exploits that. But not every scene takes place in the snow. The scene when Yuki visits her Mothers grave is very hallucinogenic with vivid colors and the locations were almost always ambitious in scope. Visually, it takes things father than nearly all of the Lone Wolf films. The movie just looked great.
There are also some other nice touches. For one, the acting is strong and Meiko Kaji (Yuki) was intense. Her eyes were freaking terrifying. She know she’s tough, but she doesn’t oversell it. Too many actresses struggle with being tough, as it often feels like they’re trying too hard. Kaji also can be charming, endearing and feminine, a huge contrast to her manga counterpart, where she’s a robotic ice queen. I didn’t like the manga because its sleaze seemed to be a gimmick. Yuki was boring, the plot was generally boring and there was no conflict. Yuki does have a conflict here, and thankfully it’s understated, but the films greatest human achievement is its portrayal of some of the rapists. They haven’t become good people or anything. But they do seem almost miserable for what they are, as if they have been ruined by their ugly pasts. They’re far from redemption, but they appear to know that they’ll be punished for their actions. They certainly aren’t one dimensional and the one that arguably is oozes menace and charisma. The acting is great by the entire cast and these roles give them quite a bit to do.
My problem with ”Lady Snowblood“ is similar to my issue with “Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance”. The film is bogged down with unnecessarily flashbacks that go on too long. Honestly, I’m confused as to why they felt the need to finish everything in one movie. Some of the fights are lackluster and disappointing, and the pacing is uneven for it. But this is the superior film due because the character writing was better. Lone Wolf was intense, but he was always just 100% badass. This movie has an excellent scene where Yuki enters a westernized masquerade. It’s like as if she s entered a whole new world, and Meiko Kaji plays the scene as if she s suddenly insecure, unsure how to act in this alien world. The character of Yuki holds the movie together, while the films excellent direction and cinematography elevated it past the usual genre feature. The 70’s were a time of experimentation and “Lady Snowblood” is experimentation at its finest.