Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime)

Director: Toshiya Fujita
Screenplay: Norio Osada (based on the manga by Kazuo Kamimura & Kazuo Koike)
Stars: Meiko Kaji (Yuki Kashima), Toshio Kurosawa (Ryûrei Ashio), Masaaki Daimon (Gô Kashima), Miyoko Akaza (Sayo Kashima), Shinichi Uchida (Shirô Kashima), Takeo Chii (Tokuichi Shôkei), Noboru Nakaya (Banzô Takemura), Yoshiko Nakada (Kobue Takemura), Akemi Negishi (Tajire no Okiku), Kaoru Kusuda (Otora Mikazuki), Sanae Nakahara (Kitahama, Okono), Hôsei Komatsu (Genzô Shibayama), Makoto Matsuzaki (Daikashi), Hiroshi Hasegawa (Daihachi Kachime)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1973
Country: Japan
The Complete Lady Snowblood Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Lady SnowbloodBest known in the U.S. as the primary inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, particularly Vol. 1 (2003), Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime) is a pulpy blend of traditional Japanese chanbara antics and grindhouse provocation. Although it was made on a relatively meager budget at Toho—the one-time home of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi, and Mikio Naruse—during a period of significant decline for all the major Japanese studios, Fujita churned out a film of rich texture and beauty that combines all manner of artistry from both stage and screen. Many of the scenes take place on obvious sets with patently fake visual flourishes, while other scenes take place in naturalistic settings. Fujita, who at the time was known primarily as a director of rebellious youth films, goes for gonzo in employing long takes and quick cuts, extreme close-ups and extreme long shots, freeze frames, on-screen text, superimpositions and even comic book panels (the film was based on a popular manga series by Kazuo Kamimura and Kazuo Koike). The narrative is just as radical, with screenwriter Norio Osada jumping from past to present to future, thus creating a discordant rhythm that keeps the viewer constantly engaged (it is no wonder Tarantino was so obsessed with it).

The story begins in 1874 with the birth of a child in a women’s prison. We will later discover that the woman who is giving birth has sworn vengeance on three men and one woman who murdered her husband, stole her son, and spent three days raping her. Having already killed one of the men (hence why she is in prison for life), she plays the nymphomaniac and has sex with every guard in the prison, thus ensuring she will get pregnant and produce a child who can fulfill her vengeance. That child is Yuki (Meiko Kaji), the “Lady Snowblood” of the title who spends her childhood training to be an assassin so that she may avenger her father’s death and her mother’s brutal humiliation. Her adoptive father and relentless trainer, Dôkai (Kô Nishimura), tells her, “You have a destiny that needs to be realized. Forget joy, forget sorrow, forget love, and forget hate. Except for vengeance, these must be forgotten.”

The majority of the film, which is divided into four chapters (an allusion to its origins on paper and one of the many narrative devices Tarantino borrowed for Kill Bill), takes place in near turn-of-the-20th-century Japan, where Yuki, now an adult, tracks down each of the killers, which requires her to work with Matsuemon (Hitoshi Takagi), the leader of a network of beggars who is renowned for finding people. She also ends up allying with Ryûrei Ashio (Toshio Kurosawa), a newspaper reporter who, in a clever bit of meta-narrative playfulness, chronicles Lady Snowblood’s exploits via a comic series he writes and illustrates.

The film’s nonlinear order makes the otherwise straightforward revenge narrative even more compelling, and it also highlights the various setpieces, which stand out more for not necessarily following in chronological order. For example, we are introduced to Lady Snowblood in a highly stylized street scene amid beautifully falling snow as she hacks to death five guards and a gangster who she meets on the street, which follows immediately after the scene in which she is born in the prison. There is visual disjunction between the two scenes (the prison is dark and cramped, whereas the street scene, despite taking place at night, is bright with new fallen snow), and it also takes place several decades later without any explicit demarcation of time. Thus, the scene stands on its own, as we have no real context at that point to link it with what has previously occurred.

The street scene is also crucial for the role it plays in introducing Lady Snowblood’s violent prowess, which she hides behind a seemingly submissive façade (her sword is hidden inside the handle of her purple umbrella, thus turning a demure symbol of feminine beauty and fragility into a lethal castrating agent). It also sets the film’s over-the-top tone in terms of its representation of violence, which finds arteries spurting hyperbolic geysers of paint-red blood. Her markedly pale face immediately informs us that she is an agent of death (in Japan, white is the color of death and red the color of life), and the rest of the film is testament to that assertion as she hacks and slices her way through her vengeful journey. Each of her kills is like the crescendo of a particularly demented opera, especially the final one, which finds her tracking her would-be victim, who is now a wealthy and powerful government operative, through an elaborate masquerade ball.

Of course, it is impossible to discuss the effectiveness of Lady Snowblood without giving due attention to its star, Meiko Kaji. Although virtually unknown in the West, she is a highly regarded figure among aficionados of Japanese cult and exploitation cinema, and it is no small surprise that film scholar Rikke Schubart dedicated an entire chapter of her 2007 book Super Bitches and Action Babes: The Female Hero in Popular Cinema, 1970–2006 to her. Described by Schubart as being “to Japanese cinema what Pam Grier is to American cinema: a queen of cult cinema and erotic bloodshed,” Kaji is an important figure who helped recalibrate the landscape of female roles in Japanese cinema. She was not the first to play a female samurai (the four-film The Crimson Bat series [1969–1970] had previously featured a Zatoichi-like blind swordswoman), but she was certainly the most memorable. The choice to make Yuki virtually silent, which underscores her character’s mythical, superhuman qualities, was Kaji’s, just as it was Clint Eastwood’s idea to render his iconic Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy mostly silent to emphasize his mythos. Brooding, intense, and virtually silent, she becomes instantly mythical—and unforgettable—the moment she steps on screen. No woman on screen had wielded a blade quite like Kaji, and, with all due respect to Uma Thurman, no one has equaled or bettered her since.

The Complete Lady Snowblood Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The Complete Lady Snowblood is also available from the Criterion Collection on DVD (SRP: $29.95).
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioJapanese Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video interview with manga writer Kazuo Koike
  • Video interview with screenwriter Norio Osada
  • Trailers
  • Essay by critic Howard Hampton
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 5, 2016

    Both Lady Snowblood and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance have been given new 2K transfers from 35mm low-contrast prints newly struck from the original camera negatives. Digital restoration via MTI’s DRS and Digital Vision’s Phoenix have cleared up signs of age and wear and helped stabilize the images, which means these films are looking as good as, if not better than, they did when they first premiered in the early 1970s. Although relatively low-budget in nature, both films are gorgeously shot and feature bold color schemes that are very nicely presented here. The purple of Yuki’s umbrella and the orangey-red color of the tempra-paint-like blood look perfect. Detail is very strong, to the point that we can pick out pores in the close-ups of people’s faces and the texture of fabrics (it also means that some of the make-up effects don’t look all that special, but it’s all in keeping with the film’s pulpy sense of ridiculous fun). Some of the darker scenes feel a tad muddy, but that seems to be an issue with the cinematography, not the transfer. The monaural soundtracks were transferred at 24-bit from 35mm low-contrast prints and digitally restored to remove artifacts and ambient hiss, leaving them clean and clear. The film’s gory sound effects sound great, with plenty of gooshing, swishing, and spritzing noises to accompany all the bloodshed.
    In addition to original theatrical trailers for the two films, Criterion’s Blu-ray includes two new video interviews: one with Kazuo Koike, who wrote the original manga series on which the films are based (10 min.), and one with screenwriter Norio Osada (21 min.), who penned the screenplays for both films.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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