Toshiya Fujita, “Lady Snowblood / Shurayukihime” (1973)
Based on a manga and the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” homage to old 1970s Asian martial arts flicks, “Lady Snowblood” turns out much better than I thought it would. As a film of vengeance, “Lady Snowblood” actually questions the justification for and pursuit of vengeance in a world of tumultuous social, economic and technological change. Old traditions, values and customs come in for questioning as to whether they can still have any relevance to a new generation in a new world. The film also draws power from its inversion of the traditional role of women in Japanese society: the dominant female characters are strong and unyielding while the male characters are either weak or subservient in some way.
A Westernised family travelling in the country is accosted by a village gang who, suspecting the husband to be spying for the Meiji government, kill him and his son and imprison the wife who is raped and tortured by several gang members. The wife kills one of her tormentors and is thrown into a jail for her pains. In time, she gives birth to a daughter and lives long enough to declare that the child should be brought up to avenge the deaths of her family. Taken in by a kindly woman and a stern Buddhist priest, the child Yuki is trained in martial arts and endurance, all her energies channelled by the priest into transforming her into a professional assassin. Once of age, Yuki (Meiko Kaji) seeks out her family’s assassins and dispatches them one by one. She not only leaves behind a trail of blood, corpses and dismembered limbs but also a young girl brimming herself with hatred and desire for vengeance, sensational news reports, a police force hot on her trail and a terrorised populace.
The film is beautifully shot, often from unusual and artistic angles, and carries a certain if perhaps remote elegance. Parts of the story are told in flashback and some original methods of portraying past history, including the use of old sepia-toned photographic stills and comics panels, are used. There is always the feeling of the impermanence of life and the constancy of change, and the hint that, regardless of whether she succeeds or not, Yuki’s life is lost to an existential paradox: if she succeeds in carrying out her mother’s wishes, her life itself will be over and there is nothing left; if she does not succeed, her life will never be hers to live as a free agent. A hint that pursuing vengeance is ultimately an empty quest, one that can only end badly for Yuki, is ever present. Divided into chapters, each focussed solely on an act of killing, the plot is very threadbare and loose ends are never fully explained but the entire film has a very grim and gritty determination that reflects the heroine’s own iron resolve. The acting is adequate for the job and Kaji’s face manages to be at once stony and expressive whenever the camera wants a close-up of it at critical moments in the film when something unexpected happens that robs Yuki of any satisfaction in carrying out her life work, which is more often than you’d expect in this film. Kaji’s minimal acting manages to turn Yuki into a more subtle and less one-dimensional character than Yuki perhaps deserves to be; there is the suggestion beneath her tough exterior and in some brief scenes, that perhaps Yuki doubts the wisdom of her life’s assignment and might wish that she could have been more like ordinary women. That may be an ironic point, given that most ordinary Japanese women of the time were expected to marry and raise children, and not question social expectations of them to be obedient and subservient to their fathers, husbands and sons.
As the action takes place over a period of 20+ years, the film revels in showing how people change over time and whether or not they regret past actions or realise that vows taken 20 years ago may have no force or relevance to the present day. The thugs who destroyed Yuki’s family have all met with varied fortunes: one has become a destitute drunk, trying to forget the crimes he committed in the past; another has (ironically) become a government agent and middle-man in the trading of weapons between Japan and the West. The action takes place in a world of political corruption where the rich and powerful exploit the poor and the little people are reduced to petty in-fighting and acts of betrayal and vengeance. If only they knew how the elites were screwing them in those days, then they would combine their energies and resources to fight the real enemy! But alas and alack, despite the best efforts of a crusading journalist writing up the deeds of Yuki in his newspaper, the poor are kept divided by ignorance, manipulation and oppression, and (spoiler alert) Yuki the white angel of death is herself felled by a woman much like herself in seeking family vengeance.
There’s a great deal of blood-letting and the sprays of bright-red liquid are obviously exaggerated for effect. The killing isn’t exactly graceful and the fight choreography is more efficient than balletic and stylised. After all is said and done, the film manages to be most things for most people: an enjoyable splatter samurai revenge flick, an attempt at character study and examination of the futility of revenge, and a portrayal of a society in transformation and how individuals cope with immense social and economic change.