Directed by Toshiya Fujita, 1973, 97 mins. Starring Meiko Kaji, Toshio Kurosawa, Noburu Nakaya and Sanae Nakahara.
Maybe it's the sign of a jaded reviewer, but it's seldom now I sit in front of a movie and am completely blown away. Suicide Circle was one that got me right from the get-go, Kairo another. And, really, a Hollywood movie hasn't done that to me since Fight Club. So now, as the time comes to (finally!) review the movie that partially gave this site its name, the question has to be asked: what bloody kept us?
By now, I'm sure you know Quentin Tarantino lifted the theme and structure of both Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld and its sequel, Love Song of Vengeance, to formulate his OK-in-retrospect-but-overlong-and-self-indulgent Kill Bill movies. Watching this movie you realise quite how much he appropriated; from the chapter-based structure, to a young woman set on revenge, having trained for years to be able to take revenge, a list of people to kill, swordfights in the snow… You may also be aware of an eighties Japanese-American remake, The Princess Blade. It's also the movie that Park-Chan Wook's much-hyped Sympathy for Lady Vengeance wanted to be. Well, frankly, you can ignore all of these with impunity, because Lady Snowblood is nothing short of a masterpiece. And, even though we've given it the Snowblood Apple Favourite tag on the front page, that doesn't go far enough. Let's say this: it's right up there with the best two or three films we've got on the site, and the best movie I've personally seen in a couple of years.
Bear with me, this'll take a while. It's around 1874, in Japan's Meiji era, a time when, for the first time in centuries, Japan was open to new ideas from the west. Trade is blooming, and the feudal system is coming to an end with a burgeoning middle class. The gap between rich and poor, however, is growing by the day.
In a woman's prison, a baby girl, Yuki, is born. Her mother dies almost straight after, though not before entrusting the girl to one of her cellmates, and entreating her to raise the girl for one single purpose: vengeance. The year previously, the mother had moved with her husband, a primary school teacher, and her son to a new post in the village of Koichi , whereupon the two males were murdered on suspicion of being government spies. At least, that was the pretext: the actual reason was that a gang of criminals were running a scam and did not want to get found out. The mother was kept alive, but only to be abused and raped by her husband's killers. Jailed after murdering her captor, Yuki's mother allowed herself to be impregnated so that the girl could seek revenge on the gang.
Yuki's childhood is a tough one. Raised by a Buddhist priest who trains her in the art of combat, all emotion is eliminated from her so that she has the cold heart of a killer. On her twentieth birthday, Shurayuki, as she is now known, leaves and searches for the three surviving killers.
It's a difficult search. There's a lot of early expositional scenes where we see Shurayuki take on her Lady Snowblood persona, a strong woman whose swordsmanship (and brutality) is second to none and who can take on many men at a time and win. Desperate to gain information, she's forced to play a political game by doing favours for people who might have information for her – it's why right at the start of the film we see her killing a gang boss. Eventually she finds Lord Matsuemon, who, grateful that the boss is now off his back, willingly tells her the location of the first killer. And thus the final part of her quest begins.
Now don't think for a second that the summary of the early part of the film I've given above is explained in anything like the clarity and linearity that I just have. In its initial phases, the timeline of the film jumps around so much there's the shocker of having to work out that you're watching a flashback within a flashback, and it's massively hard to keep up. I can understand why the film is structured as it is, to establish the Lady Snowblood persona right at the start without any desire to show the complicated backstory, but it really does need serious brainwork to try to make sense of the first phase of the movie. That said, by establishing what Lady Snowblood is in the first six minutes of the film you're so instantly sucked in that you're quite prepared to put in the extra work because, quite simply, you want to experience more of this fabulous character.
The raison d'etre, if you like, of Shurayuki is that she looks angelic and sexy but inside hides the cold heart of a killer. There is no judgement in the film of her; in many ways she is as bad as her father's executioners. But nevertheless our sympathies lie with this unfathomably unsympathetic character. Meiko Kaji is superb as the emotionless Lady Snowblood, completely driven, completely ruthless. Shurayuki doesn't let people get close to her – even her guardians, the closest thing to family she's got – and you get the feeling she has great difficulty relating to people, which is hardly surprising given her upbringing. And it's this distance which is seemingly effortlessly conveyed by Kaji – a fantastic performance.
And the visuals… Lady Snowblood is a feast to the eyes. Somehow the grainy 70s film stock and pink-ish tint totally works in this context; it gives an ancient, almost other-worldly feel to the piece. And if the content is poetic, then this is more than amply backed up by the direction: kinetic when there's a need, serene when necessary. Director Toshiya Fujita also uses on numerous occasions still image montages, either stop-motion live action, or ink illustrations, or even straightforward stills. Japan has seldom looked this good; the cinematography is just as accomplished as a movie like Onibaba – not bad for a film which is often dismissed as a mere exploitation flick.
Be warned though, because it's not without its flaws. The plot, initially, is as convoluted as you can imagine, and without the comprehensive (and excellent) sleevenotes on the Animeigo DVD as well as extra explanatory subtitles, it would be easy to get very, very lost. But, like any great Shakespearean tragedy, the more you put in at the start, the more you're going to get out. There's also fairly fundamental pacing problems in the middle phase of the movie, as well as an at times jarring soundtrack which, criminally, sucks you out of 19 th century Japan and which places you squarely into 1970s Hollywood. I found myself cursing the movie at some points, yet it was a criticism that was short-lived; the pacing picked up, the jazz-funk soundtrack vanished and the majesty of the previous sections of the film returned.
Cool, gory and visually stunning, Lady Snowblood is, quite simply, a must-see movie. It's almost a definition of a perfect film; strong visuals combine with a resonant plot and fast-paced action sequences and an impeccable performance from Meiko Kaji. You owe it to yourself to see this film.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 10/10 – 90 minutes have seldom felt so short
Violence: 10/10 – anyone for bisected baddies?
Sex: 0/10 – all there is is Yuki's sexy pout
So good: we named the site after it
Gallons of tomato ketchup: a whole tanker full, probably passata 'cos the blood in Lady Snowblood's a bit runny
Kill Bill: sure as hell nicked a lot. Sorry *cough* I mean homaged ;-)
Films in a Similar Style: Hmmm. Kill Bill, obviously. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance to see how a similar idea can go horribly wrong. The sequel, Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance
*** Essential! ***
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Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMlONL-BR2M - Trailer on YouTube. Someone's uploaded the majestic title sequence to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjPpoD7_I4o as well as a key action sequence at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkkXZj5VwZM
http://www.animeigo.com/SAMURAI/LADYSNOWBLOOD.t - the best DVD available in the West is, without doubt, the Animeigo one. Their website has details, along with their sleevenotes if you've got the rubbish Warrior version and need some help
http://10kbullets.com/reviews/lady-snowblood-comparison-warrior-vs-animeigo/ - speaking of which, 10,000 Bullets compares the Animeigo DVD and the Warrior one if you needed any convincing
http://www.toho-a-park.com/video/new/syurayuki/d_index.html - If you're feeling flush, how about a beautiful looking (but no doubt unsubbed) Japanese DVD?
http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/swordplay/ladysnowblood/ladysnowblood.html - KFCC give it a really good going-over. In Chapters!
http://www.dvdvisionjapan.com/ladysnow.html - DVD Vision Japan fundamentally disagree with me on the soundtrack!
http://www.sarudama.com/japanese_movies/ladysnowblood.shtml - Scott Foutz does his usual thorough reviewing job on the film
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meiko_Kaji - Profile of Meiko Kaji
http://www.medievidenskab-odense.dk/index.php?id=54 - Excellent article on Meiko Kaji's career