In a Tokyo prison in 1874, a child is born to an inmate, Sayo (Miyoko Akaza). She tells her newborn that she is a child of vengeance. Twenty years later, the child, now a skilled female assassin (Meiko Kaji), is searching for a small group of swindlers. Before she was born, near the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, Japan was in turmoil from the political and social revolution. Three men and a woman mistakenly believe that a man dressed in white is a government official (an accepted manner in which to identify such a person), and they brutally kill him and his son, subsequently raping his wife, Sayo. One of the killers takes Sayo as his mistress, and, when presented with an opportunity, the woman murders her captor.
Arrested and imprisoned for the crime, Sayo is unable to enact her revenge upon the remaining villains, and she hopes for a strong son who will avenge her. She dies after giving birth to her daughter, Yuki. One of Sayo’s fellow prisoners raises the girl with the help of Priest Dokai, who mercilessly trains Yuki from an early age. Finding work as a killer for hire, Yuki lives her life for the inevitable retribution that she will administer to the people responsible for her mother’s agony. Vengeance, however, is neither simple nor easily attained. Yuki’s path will be long, arduous, and stained with blood.
Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime) is an engaging and elegantly stylized movie. Fujita’s approach helps lessen the impact of the cinematic violence, and likewise does not amplify the bloodshed by presenting duels in the style of a ballet. Yuki’s deathblows are swift and direct. She does not draw her sword to inflict pain, but instead goes for the kill. Such a businesslike technique may seem ruthless, but it’s both the woman’s profession and her lifestyle, and the sword fights seem less savage when they are over so quickly. The movie focuses on the aftermath and consequences.
Lady Snowblood presents its audience with a unique killer. In Yuki’s introduction (as an adult), she has all the appearances of a typical Japanese woman: she’s adorned in a kimono, walking in the snow and carrying a parasol. When she hears someone approaching, she ducks away behind a corner. The seemingly meek woman, however, is not hiding; she is waiting. She stands in the path of a horse and carriage, surrounded by several men. When the men attack, the assassin shows herself. Hardly restricted by her kimono and sandals, Yuki uses her parasol as both a distraction and defense, and reveals what is likely a wakizashi (a smaller-bladed sword, longer than a dagger), the length of the parasol’s handle acting as a scabbard, or sheath. In little time, the men are dead, and Yuki continues on her away, the only sign of violence an open cut in her parasol.
Throughout the film are cues that acknowledge bloodshed as an incendiary for Yuki’s peace of mind. In the opening scene, Yuki appears from the pure white snow, tarnishes it with blood, and retreats back into the snow. Here is a “child of the netherworld” (as Dokai calls her -- “netherworld” is one of the translations of “Shura” in her titular name), hoping to achieve the innocence she has been denied. The paradox is that, in order to cleanse herself, she must allocate impurities. The song that plays during the credits references Yuki renouncing her “womanhood.” She has, however, sacrificed not only her womanhood, but also her individual self. Her life exists to avenge someone else’s death. Only when her violent retaliation is complete can Yuki truly be herself.
In 1974, a sequel followed, Fujita’s Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (Shurayukihime: Urami Koiuta). A little more than a decade proceeding the events of Lady Snowblood, Yuki has become a fugitive. Wounded and tired from running, the assassin ultimately surrenders to the authorities who have been tracking her. Yuki is sentenced to death by hanging, but on the way to her execution, she is freed by the “Secret Police.” These men enlist Yuki’s help to infiltrate the life of Tokunaga Ransui (Juzo Itami), who apparently has an important and desired document. When Yuki learns of the document’s contents, she chooses a side and sets her sights (and sword) on cruel and unjust men.
At a precursory glance, the second Lady Snowblood seems to demote Yuki to a secondary character status in her own film. She is a small woman in a country of upheaval. War surrounds both films. Around the time of Yuki’s revenge in Lady Snowblood, the First Sino-Japanese War would have begun. At the start of the second film, the Russo-Japanese War has ended (in one scene, young children in a village are happily chanting a song proclaiming Japan’s victory). A character’s torture in Love Song of Vengeance closely resembles the malicious practices of Unit 731, which conducted biological and chemical warfare on prisoners during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.
Despite all that is taking place, it seems that Yuki’s presence is so powerful that whichever side she chooses will be the victor. She is saved from her execution to assist the Secret Police, only to be asked to help the opposing so-called anarchists. In this regard, Yuki becomes a weapon in a nameless war. This evokes a dilemma similar to the first film, but one that is much more relevant: peace cannot be procured through peaceful means, but with a declaration of war. Yuki wages war to bring peace, almost as if she were wielding a sword in one hand and holding a treaty in the other.
The Lady Snowblood movies were based on the manga written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Kazuo Kamimura. Koike also wrote the Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami) series, which followed a man avenging his wife’s murder by becoming an assassin, accompanied by his young son (initially only one-year-old and pushed in a baby cart outfitted with munitions). The manga was adapted into a stunning and fascinating six-movie film series in the 1970s. The Japanese title of Lady Snowblood, Shurayukihime, is a play on the Japanese version of Snow White, which is Shirayukihime, translated as “Princess Snow White.” Yuki’s name can be translated as “snow” and is a popular female name in Japan. The film’s theme song, played during the opening credits and which closes the movie, was sung by actress Kaji.
There was a pseudo-remake of Lady Snowblood in 2001 with The Princess Blade (the original Japanese title was the same as the 1973 film), a near-future setting that shares a passing resemblance to the original. The first volume of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003) is more of a remake, as the director lifts narrative and visual components (and even uses the theme song, which appeared on the movie’s soundtrack). Most fans consider it an homage.
What makes Yuki such a sensational character in the films is that she is multidimensional. Kaji provides a performance that’s both self-assertive and refined. Her stoic demeanor and conventional attire represent a traditional Japan, which contrasts with the Westernization of the Meiji period (taking place during the course of both films). Her sword is her only weapon, and more than once she faces opponents armed with guns. Yuki adapts well to her environment, whether hiding in the slums or walking through a Western-style costume party. Interestingly, though she is a woman without the benefit of modern weaponry, Yuki is never underestimated by any of the men. (When she’s apprehended in Love Song of Vengeance, she’s hopelessly outnumbered but is only approached when it’s clear that she is surrendering.) They treat her like an equal, as if a duel or encounter with this delicate woman could be their last. And, more often than not, it is.