Star: Meiko Kaji
Back in the eighties in England, I learned about genre film as much by reading about it as by actually watching it, given that the self appointed arbiters of public morals cut or banned movies by the bucketload. I remember reading with longing about a number of Japanese films from the early seventies, generally sourced from manga and featuring stylised violence and great gouts of blood, precisely the sort of thing that the censors had kittens about. Most notable were those written by Kazuo Koike and eventually, through an underground source, I found the six films in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, along with the American Shogun Assassin, compiled from the first two, which had a history of trouble with the censors, though it technically never made the video nasty list. I never found Lady Snowblood back then but I'm overjoyed that AnimEigo have made it available in a crisp letterbox print with solid subtitles and useful liner notes.
Rape revenge films were always a popular target for the British censors, but most were sleazy affairs that had little redeeming value, not that I didn't want the freedom to choose to watch the things anyway. In stark comparison, Lady Snowblood is a deep and meaningful exploration of the concept of revenge, albeit with a good deal of bloodshed. The depth begins with the title, as Shurayuki-hime is not just visual poetry but also a deliberate pun in Japanese. The three words involved are 'shura', a Buddhist term meaning 'netherworld', a place with similar implications to the western 'Hell'; 'yuki', which means 'snow' and is a popular girls' name; and 'hime', a suffix meaning 'princess' or 'lady'. Change a single letter to 'Shirayuki' and you have 'Snow White', an innocent girl pursued by an evil queen, or in other words the precise opposite of the heroine of this story, who is a pursuer of evil who shows no innocence when cutting it down.
The script dances around the years a little, showing us scenes and then explaining the context. This context is grounded as much in Japanese history as in a set of fictional characters, and the AnimEigo subtitles and notes ably fill us in without distracting us from events as they unfold. Our heroine is Yuki, the Lady Snowblood of the title, who shows how dangerous she is at the outset, making quick work of gang leader Shibayama Genzo and his men with somersaults, swordplay and a sharp edged parasol. What's important isn't just that she's a finely honed weapon but that she's seeking vengeance for someone other than herself. Her mother, Kashima Sayo, who dies giving birth to her in a Tokyo prison, explains to the midwife that she is born for vengeance, 'a child of the netherworlds.' In fact Sayo has whored herself out in prison entirely to increase her chances at pregnancy, so to enable her plans for revenge. This is all consuming vengeance!
And so, in 1873, when Kashima Go wanders into the village of Koichi to take up the position of schoolmaster, he really shouldn't have dressed all in white. He's quickly murdered, along with his young son Shiro, by killers who promptly rape his wife, Sayo, for three days and three nights. One of them then takes Sayo to Tokyo, where she kills him and ends up in prison, consumed by hatred and a thirst for revenge that she manifests in her daughter, Yuki, whose sole purpose for existing is to track down the three remaining villains and kill them to satisfy her mother's lust for vengeance. The midwife, Mikazuki Otora, takes her to Dokai, a priest who trains her ruthlessly to fulfil her destiny. If you're horrified by the lengths that Sayo goes in the name of revenge, that's the point. This is a lesson in what that revenge means, how it affects those involved in the story and also how it affects others who only later join its periphery.
In 1973, Meiko Kaji was known for pinky violence movies, such as five films in the Stray Cat Rock girl gang series and four in the Female Prisoner Scorpion women in prison series, as well as the yakuza picture Wandering Ginza Butterfly and its sequel, these eleven films only taking up four years of her filmography from 1970 to 1973. Lady Snowblood and its 1974 sequel, Love Song of Vengeance, allowed her to move into more serious work, the pinnacle of which is probably The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, a 1978 adaptation of a play first performed in 1703 and described as the Japanese Romeo and Juliet. She's a good part of the success of this film, ably portraying not only the resolute face of vengeance but a growing questioning of what will come next. The film's final moments are given over to putting her into a magnificently poetic setting of this question: what do you do next when your entire raison d'être has been fulfilled?
I should add that Genzo isn't one of those Yuki seeks, his death merely being a nod to the many she kills in the source manga as a hired assassin. Kazuo Koike's manga ran to four volumes with fifteen distinct chapters, so an attempt to tell the story within a 97 minute running time means that much had to be left out. We focus instead on the three direct objects of Yuki's quest, which are bloodier and more complex in turn. Beyond Kaji, who dominates the film, the most obvious actor is Toshio Kurosawa as Ashio Ryurei, an author and journalist who meets her in a graveyard where she discovers that her second target was killed in a shipwreck three years earlier, thus prompting questions about how she can meet her obligations when the man is already dead. Dokai feeds Ryurei her story to novelise, which serves as bait to bring out Kitahama Okono, the woman who held Sayo back from her husband's murder and to be raped by the others.
While it's easy to watch this film for the blood, which gouts and gushes beyond any semblance of reality, spraying out in vast quantities as if every wound pierces an primary artery, it's hard not to realise just how much depth it has. I have to admit that after one viewing, I'd still favour the Lone Wolf and Cub films, but this one is already resonating as I ponder the implications and questions that it raises. The story unfolds with panache, with a firm place in history and with new complexities introduced at each key moment to deepen Yuki's character. It's backed gloriously, Masaki Tamura's camera moving simply but very effectively. Banzo's death is a great example. When Yuki strikes a killing blow, the camera leaps back as if in shock, then closes in as he falls sideways into the sea, focusing on his face as he dies, washed by bloody waves. We close in on Yuki's eyes before she tosses him into the sea at the spot his daughter threw her chikufujin.
This camerawork is deceptively clever, but perhaps only if we expect an exploitation film. This is really as artistic as any of the great jidaigeki films, albeit in more garish colours, and the pace is note perfect. The relentless story unfolds inevitably, but with a few surprises on the way, and it builds as Yuki's character builds, each setpiece bigger and more complex than the last, until the logical conclusion where we leave the story at precisely the right moment. It's no wonder that Lady Snowblood proved so influential, not only as a companion piece to Lone Wolf and Cub but as the chief inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, which tells much the same story and even uses the theme tune, The Flower of Hell or The Flower of Carnage, in both halves. It was also recently remade, though transplanted from the past to the future, as The Princess Blade. As a substantial treatment of a timeless story, it has solidified its place as a cinematic marker.