Lady Snowblood 修羅雪姫
1973 // Japan // Toshiya Fujita
Criterion Release Date: January 5, 2016 (LINK)
Lady Snowblood is unashamedly the genre film at its finest, no wonder Quentin Tarantino took it as the inspiration of his own Kill Bill saga (2003-04). But what took me as a surprise are the similarities and differences (more on the latter) between Lady Snowblood and The Assassin, the 2015 wu-xia film by the Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien. While the latter is more implicit, elliptical and submissive, Lady Snowblood is everything in opposite: expressive, transgressive and formalized.
Adapted from the manga of the same title, Lady Snowblood centers around the vengeance plan of the “born-assassin” Yuki (portrayed by the phenomenal Meiko Kaji), aka the Lady Snowblood. The film is divided into four chapters, each was shown with the chapter title on the screen in a very much “comic-like” style. The first chapter serves as the foundation of the whole plot, begin with a quick showcase of “blood-splashing” scene as Yiki kills the enemies, contrasting the enemies’ bright red blood with the pure white snow and the kimono visually.
The vibrant use and contrast of expressive colors, vigorously captured by the cinematographer Masaki Tamura, is the visual motif of the film. The corrupted, evil red and the pure, innocent white embodied by the protagonist simultaneously, who was born with only one purpose, to seek revenge for her family’s death. The tragedy that fallen upon her family, and the arduous trainings Yiki endured in her childhood are quickly explained through a series of flashback. Yiki is born to be an asura, a demon driven by the grief of her mother.
The revenge plot is captivating, together with sympathy and excitement it arose, the audience can easily engage with the emotion of the protagonist. So when Yuki traced and killed her second target, an ailing gambling-addicted Banzo Takemura (Noboru Nakaya), we would hardly feel sorry for Banzo’s daughter Kobue (Yoshiko Nakada), whom Yuki just met beforehand. The vicious cycle of violence/revenge is demonstrated in Kobue’s character, whose unconditional love and loyalty to her father fan her determination to find Yuki. Despite it comes in full circle in the last chapter, this subplot is unfortunately underused.
Just when I fear the story would become too predictable, the third chapter utilizes a plot twist to keep the story engaging. One of Yuki’s target, Gishiro Tsukamoto (Eiji Okada, who is better known in Hiroshima mon amour (1959) & Woman in the Dunes (1964), both are Criterion titles), was “dead” in a shipwreck. Upon the visit of her enemy’s tomb, she is spotted by a mysterious man Ryurei Ashio (Toshio Kurosawa). Ryurei is eager to learn the truth behind Yuki, and later published her story as a serial novel of the name of “Lady Snowblood”. Director Toshiya Fujita uses a montage of still photos of the manga to represent the the novel with the film, a self-conscious reflection on the film’s origin.
The novel is intended to lure another target, Okono Kitahama (Sanae Nakahara), out from hiding, and it succeeds to do so. When the last chapter arrives, one may easily guess the remaining plot, the killing of Yuki’s ultimate target and the true identity of Ryurei. In the end, the film is about the ghost of the past, about how one depravity leads to another. Just when Yuki accomplish the vengeance, she need to face the consequence of her own deed. Yuki, Kobue and Ryurei represent the Meiji era, the beginning of the modernisation in Japan. Still, they are the children of the feudal past, they are bound by the tie of their families, Yuki and Kobue need to seek revenge for their families’ death whilst Ryurei intend to cut tie by assist in killing his own father.
Personally, I find the flamboyant use of blood splashing, to a certain extent, comical (I have to admit I’m not used to this genre), but the choreography of sword fights are stylish enough to keep me entertained. I thoroughly enjoy the entire film, especially the performance of Meiko Kaji who epitomizes the ambivalence of empathy and ferocity, virtue and immorality simultaneously. Lady Snowblood is straightforward in narrative mostly (except the use of flashback-within-flashback in the first chapter). The screenplay by Norio Osada balances the pace of action and the emotional punch. Without a doubt, it is a thrill ride.