Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Vengeance Will Be Hers in “Lady Snowblood”

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 smal
l 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.


  1. This is an outstanding movie review, Sark. I can only wish to be so talented a writer. Makes my movie reviews look like comic books!! The plot of the movie sounds so interesting. Yuki is a ruthless and efficent assassin, but I can't help feeling sympathy for her. She did not choose her destiny. It was chosen for her by her mother and the men who raised her. I really like the symbolism of her walking in white snow which she stains with blood then is seen retreating into the clean white snow again. I have never seen this movie but have recently heard about it. A friend of mine recommended this movie because he thought I would like it. After reading your excellent review, I think he is right. I definitely want to see it. I sure hope it is available from Netflix. Excellent review of a fascinating sounding movie, Sark. I enjoyed reading about it very much.

  2. Sark, this is a superb review of the LADY SNOWBLOOD movies (I own both on DVD). The first film is a poetic masterpiece--one mesmerizing scene looks like a snowglobe turned upside down. It's a prologue of white snowy innocence that ultimately leads to blood-splattered vengeance. I love your brilliant point that "in order to cleanse herself, she must allocate impurities." LADY SNOWBLOOD has certainly been an influential movie, especially the concept of a deadly assassin masquerading (at least initially) as a meek young woman. I like the sequel, which is worthy on its own merits. My only quibble is that it mutes the impact of the first film's ending--in short, I don't think a sequel was needed. I'd thrilled you chose this film, because it deserves the attention. It's much more than just the film-that-inspired-KILL BILL. By the way, I love the LONE WOLF AND CUB movies and own all of them. The 1970s was a great period for creative Japanese samurai cinema.

  3. Wow, I'm surprised see this movie reviewed here. But pleased. I sought it out aftering watching "Kill Bill" and was left speechless. It's better than Tarantino's movie.

  4. Sark, you have painted a vivid portrait of a film that is decidedly visual. When our title character walks to her first mission she looks vulnerable, but we soon see that she is anything but. When asked her name, she first replies "Vengeance" and then "Lady Snowblood." What an onus to place on a newborn! The stark contrasts of pure white and red are both very well depicted in the film and described in your eloquent write-up. You are dead-on in your comparison with "Kill Bill." And I appreciated you noting the writer's other work: the "Lone Wolf and Cub" series. It was interesting to read about the "Princess Snow White" translation, which sounds as innocent as "Lone Wolf and Cub" does. Impeccable review, Sark.

  5. Sark, I really enjoyed reading this. While I haven't seen Lady Snowbird, it does remind me a lot of Kill Bill...which you point out. It also brings to mind a number of other films where revenge is the centerpiece. I'll look for the Lady Snowbird films on DVD.

  6. Your amazing store of knowledge about Japanese films always makes your reveiews just wonderful, Sark. (Sorry I'm so late with my comment -- I've been sick.) I can see that I am going to have the same experience with Lady Snowblood as I had with The Seven Samurai. In that case, I saw it's remake The Magnificent Seven first, then sought out the original masterpiece. In this case, I just love the Kill Bill movies, and am now eager to see the original Lady Snowblood. Wonderful piece of work, Sark.