Does revenge have a place in any modern civilization? The concept of vengeance incarnated via a young woman becomes a force expanding from individuals to community and finally ignites on a national scale in two surprisingly bloody and yet contemplative "Lady Snowblood" movies, recently remastered and released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection.
Directed by Toshiya Fujita, a filmmaker whose two “Stray Cat Rock” films have just been issued on Blu-ray by Arrow Video and whose other credits are not well known outside Japan, ”Lady Snowblood" (1973) and the unlikely but fitting sequel "Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance" (1974) star Meiko Kaji as the title character, the single-minded swordswoman Yuki Kashima. The first film follows Yuki as she tracks two men and a woman who are the surviving members of a gang which raped Yuki’s mother and killed the woman’s husband and son. In the sequel, Yuki’s vengeful motivation is co-opted by a shady political force, pushing her drive as such out of the private sphere and into the public arena.
The “Lady Snowblood” movies share a dynamic spirit with contemporary Japanese series like the “Lone Wolf and Cub” films (also based on manga by "Lady Snowblood” creator Kazuo Koike) and the “Zatoichi” series. These films are kin to the hundreds of spaghetti westerns that had already emerged from Italy by 1973, as well as the work of Sam Peckinpah and “New Hollywood” landmarks such as “Bonnie and Clyde.” Like those films, the “Lady Snowblood” movies apply a high aesthetic ideal to a blend of violence and sociopolitical awareness.
One particular aspect distinguishes the “Lady Snowblood” films from almost every other similarly-themed movie of the time: a woman is the protagonist. “Bonnie and Clyde” obviously comes closest, and there are some other female-led Westerns, but virtually no challengers in Japan.
"I wanted to create a demonic woman" said Kazuo Koike said of the Yuki Kashima character. Born in prison, Yuki takes her first breath and is immediately charged with avenging crimes against her family. A brief overview of her actions (spoiler: Yuki is damn good at fulfilling her mandate) might suggest these are films for voyeurs seeking simplistic satisfaction in allegedly justified violence. But this is no fist-pumping revenge story.
In the hands of Fujita and screenwriter Norio Osada, Lady Snowblood’s existence is as tragic as it is bloody. Certainly, glorious cinematography and crudely insistent gore (the film’s firehose sprays of blood come to mind) provide unique visual pleasures in both movies. The filmmaking duo’s conception of Lady Snowblood is indeed as a vengeful demon, but one with strong social and political overtones as the films trace her path through the period in which Japan transformed from a feudal state into the empire of popular imagination.
Yuki’s task seems pretty straightforward at first. In "Lady Snowblood," the heroine’s first reckoning is with the most mundane and cinematically familiar person on her list: a washed-up village gambler. This encounter lays the groundwork for a story about personal revenge. But the victim has a daughter, whose response to Yuki’s deadly handiwork suggests that the situation will escalate. Even simple revenge isn’t simple, and the film’s structure, initially twisted in non-linear fashion, suggests just how complicated Yuki’s quest will be.
Fujita breaks the story throughout with manga panels, black and white photos and freeze-frame emphasis. The truly eclectic soundtrack contrasts traditional sounds with themes that might be more obviously at home in Italian Westerns and thrillers. There are hidden identities, faked deaths, two-way mirrors and hints of telepathy.
Both "Lady Snowblood" films are set in the Meiji Period (1868-1912), in which Japan transitioned with some difficulty from an isolationist feudal society to a more modern nation united under a newly powerful emperor. The Shogunate and its class of samurai warriors is gone, and with them the tiered caste system which enforced strict codes of social behavior and justice for over two centuries.
In "Lady Snowblood," tropes of the samurai film are stripped away. As a character, Lady Snowblood resembles the familiar ronin, the masterless samurai who wanders the countryside exemplified by the character played by Toshiro Mifune in "Yojimbo" and "Sanjuro." In truth, Yuki has more in common with morally hazy "end of the West" characters so well defined by Peckinpah in films such as "The Wild Bunch" and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," and she exists at a social and political tipping point.
The extraordinary violence of Peckinpah’s films is also reflected in "Lady Snowblood," which features severed limbs and a body sliced entirely in half. Yet these aren’t action movies as much as they reflect a heightened reality. As in the "Lone Wolf and Cub" films, sword strikes often result in great geysers of blood jetting out from bodies like the high-pressure flush of atmosphere from a punctured spacecraft hull.
The essential fact of Yuki’s gender places the "Lady Snowblood" films outside any familiar context. Female warriors were uncommon in Japanese cinema in 1973, and absolutely unheard of during the Meiji period, when women in Japan had no voting privileges or official political power. Significantly, one of Yuki’s targets is a female crime lord, seemingly one of the few positions of power available to women at the time. Yuki strides through both movies often aloof and detached, and it isn’t difficult to understand why— there was almost no one else like her.
Yuki’s original quest for vengeance eventually takes her right into the Rokumeikan, typically a meeting ground between Japanese and foreign dignitaries. This is not just a palace of the prevailing political order, but one meant to represent steps into the future. The most elevated of Yuki’s targets in "Lady Snowblood" cynically describes the institution as a place supposedly meant for progress, but is in fact where the rich establishment gathers to engage in base pleasures.
The Rokumeikan was destined to fail, and the blood that flows in the climax of "Lady Snowblood" stains Japanese and United States flags alike and essentially indicts of already-corrupt new order. The image is more intuitively powerful than rigorously symbolic, but the bloody flags suggest that not only is the new Meiji order already troubled, but that Yuki’s revenge isn’t helping matters.
Conscious and unconscious reflections of Lady Snowblood shimmer throughout cinema —in the films of Quentin Tarantino and Chan-wook Park, and even in the snowy lightsaber fight in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." If casual viewers know "Lady Snowblood" at all, they might recognize the first film as the inspiration for Lucy Liu‘s character O-Ren Ishii in the "Kill Bill" films, and as a pointer to the snowy showdown between O-Ren and Uma Thurman‘s Beatrix Kiddo.
Even a passive comparison of Tarantino’s work and the first "Lady Snowblood" film betrays that it had a significant effect on the filmmaker. The film’s non-linear storytelling, morally uncertain characters, freeze-frame character introductions and vivid chapter titles are all hallmarks of Tarantino’s movies.
There’s every reason to cast a suspicious eye towards the sequel. "Love Song of Vengeance" is more dramatically brutish than its predecessor, relying on a more traditional and less elegant narrative structure. It lacks the idiosyncratic unpredictability that makes the original movie feel more nimble than its pulp story truly is. If the second film’s utilization of Yuki and her story is not as strong as the first, it trades off that intimate focus for a vivid portrait of violence that is amplified as it ripples out from Yuki’s epicenter.
And yet, as the sequel brings the first film’s political background right up to the forefront, it makes an argument to be considered just as seriously. Captured for her crimes —including killings seen in the original film and others implied in events between the two— Yuki is coerced into working as an establishment spy. Placed into the home of a political dissident, where she tastes the "normal" life she’s never been able to lead, Yuki almost fools herself into believing that she might achieve such peaceful simplicity.
The curse of Yuki’s birth, however, is never far from hand, and the circle of vengeance-seekers expands to include new allies and enemies. "Love Song of Vengeance" escalates into a conflict engulfing hundreds, possibly thousands, of innocents, culminating in a truly horrifying conflagration.
The political evolution of the Rokumeikan, seemingly stalled in the first film, is now emboldened by Japan’s victory over Russia in the decisive Battle of Tsushima, which established Japan as a major modern naval power. Everything is seemingly moving forward for Japan, but Yuki is still stuck in the same cycle.
Then again, “Love Song of Vengeance” was produced with the full knowledge of the outcome of that new military power in Japan.
Metaphorical ties between Lady Snowblood and Japan’s larger place in any cyclical conflict are frankly a bit hazy. Yet Fujita sets the final dramatic conflict on the grounds for the Navy Day celebration of that victory at Tsushima. The implied ties between characters and the world at large are strong enough to drench the film’s closing text in irony: "the Meiji emperor’s glorious reign would soon meet its end.”
Lady Snowblood’s story effectively ends on that Navy Day ground, but violent echoes of the political changes occurring around her will continue to resound on an ever-larger scale for decades to come.