The 70s period assassin classic arrives on Blu-ray in all it’s bright red, blood splattering glory…
Based on the manga Shurayukihime written by Kazuo Koike, creator of the popular rogue samurai series Lone Wolf And Cub, and illustrated by Kazuo Kamimura, Lady Snowblood quickly followed its predecessor on to a big screen adaption.
Meiko Kaji (Stray Cat Rock series, Female Convict Scorpion series) plays Yuki Kashima, better known as Lady Snowblood, born during snowfall in a women’s prison for the express purpose of getting vengeance upon those who killed her family and raped her mother.
Trained from child hood with a priest, this assassin is intent on tracking down the four criminals responsible. She enlists a reporter, Ryūrei Ashio (Toshio Kurasawa, The Wolves, The Water Margin TV Series) who agrees to tell her story in the newspapers in order ferret out the last of them (and allowing the director to use panels from the original manga).
But will Yuki complete her quest?
Lady Snowblood reunited Meiko Kaji with Toshiya Fujita, her director on two of the Stray Cat Rock series of films in which she appeared, Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo and Stray Cat Rock: Crazy Rider ’71. While the majority of Fujita’s output may have been pink films for big studios, particularly Nikkatsu , there’s no doubting the lasting impact he left behind with Snowblood.
And Snowblood does look fantastic. It’s easy to be a bit dismissive of adaptions of Kazuo Koike’s manga, as his paced writing and often minimal use of dialogue in sequences let his artist explore the story so visually that, as with Goseki Kojima’s work on Lone Wolf And Cub, they become perfect storyboards. But that rather underestimates the work of Fujita and his cinematographer Masaki Tamura.
With the current plethora of manga and comic adaptions, it’s easy to forget how good it can be when filmmakers truly capture the essence of the artwork and, if anything, elevate it. It’s not simply a case of echoing scenes from the manga, frame for frame, though there’s no doubt some of the strongest visual imagery is taken from it. Snowblood has some stunning photography, making this restoration to Blu-Ray quality all the more worthwhile.
And it needs that. Snowblood herself, like most of Koike’s characters, is a monosyllabic lead. Kaji’s performance hits the note just right, retaining her femininity without frailty or weakness. Interestingly considering Fujita’s other work, Snowblood actually avoids much of the sexuality of the original manga. (Undoubtedly a wise decision, as these scenes would not have translated well to what is, effectively, already an exploitation movie.)
Perhaps that’s due input from Koike, who is said to have worked on the script. There’s a nice use of chapter titles throughout; again echoing the original manga it’s always a device I’m rather drawn to.
Like most samurai films, victims gush with ridiculous amounts of blood. Here those amounts are taken to almost Monty Python-esque, Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days sketch extremes, with bright, post box red blood flooding the screen. Rather less usual is the jaunty 70s soundtrack, the great use of sound and often silence, and a slightly more contemporary setting as its set in the late 1800s with guns and rifles making more of an appearance.
Perhaps more than with Lone Wolf And Cub, Lady Snowblood seems a comment on corruption in the authorities that should be honourable, with criminals having found their way into positions of power. One of the last scenes shows the main villain falling from a balcony, surrounded by ambassadors from various embassies, pulling a Japanese flag with him.
(Sorry, that may have been a bit of a spoiler…)
This carries through to the sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance, as Yuki finds herself caught between Kikui Seishiro (Shin Kishida), the mysterious head of secret police, and anarchist Tokunaga Ransui (Jûzô Itami, director of Tampopo and A Taxing Woman) over a document that could bring the government down.
Despite having been rescued from execution by Seishiro, Yuki soon sides with Ransui, escaping to seek sanctuary with his estranged brother Shusuke (Yoshio Harada, Still Walking, Onibi, Ronin-gai). But Shusuke simply wants to exploit the document for extortion – a greed that brings the might of the authorities down on their squalid district.
Still visually strong, the image of Yuki surrounded by police on a beach as she throws her sword into the air and the tide floods in, just before the films title hits the screen, is achingly beautiful. (From what I’ve read, a tribute to the closing frames of the manga.) Fujita returned to direct, with Tamura again acting as cinematographer.
However, without the main arc of the original storyline Snowblood 2 falters from the beginning, lacking both the afore-mentioned vengeance and from what I could see the love story from the title. There’s the start of something interesting in Yuki’s character, disguised as a maid, as she begins to experience the normal life she never had a chance to live before.
But this is cut rather short as the narrative flips back and forth between Shusuke and Ransui’s residences, and the secret police. It loses it’s way somewhat, and any power in the political situation is rather lost.
There’s little indication of where this story falls in Yuki’s timeline, a vagueness that could have been rather useful had Snowblood made it to further sequels. There’s not as much fighting, and the plague is used as a weapon – which rather made me think of Akira Yoshimura’s book Shipwrecks, published nearly a decade later.
Much is made out of the films connection to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill; a great deal of his film is inspired by Lady Snowblood, from the plot to the design of the O-Ren Ishii character, through several frame-for-frame references and even the use of the theme song Shura No Hana, sung by Meiko Kaji herself.
But evoking Tarantino’s tendency to plunder classics rather underplays the legacy of Snowblood, and it’s one that goes far beyond remakes like Angela Mao (Thunderbolt, Hapkido, Enter The Dragon) vehicle Broken Oath and Shinsuke Sato’s (Gantz, Gantz 2: Perfect Answer) The Princess Blade.
There’s more than a little of Snowblood in many ladies of vengeance since. Take Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance, the clue being in the English title chosen; from the use of the women’s prison, to the snow motif that falls throughout the move. Ronny Yu’s visual powerhouse The Bride With White Hair springs to mind as another example that feels at the very least informed, shall we say, by Toshiya Fujita’s earlier films. Particularly the scenes of Yuki being taught her craft, surrounded by a swirl of autumnal leaves.
Lady Snowblood, particularly the original, should be no more than a female-led vengeance movie, but amazing cinematography and assure direction elevate it way above that, and this latest version on Blu-ray makes that clear. A classic to own in your library…
Lady Snowblood and Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance are released today by Arrow Video as a Dual Format Edition and as a Limited Edition Steelbook on Blu-ray.
Originally 24 September 2012.
Distributor: Arrow Video (UK)
Edition: Steelbook Blu-Ray or Dual Format Blu-Ray and DVD editions (2012)
Immaculate restoration of both films does their (rather unexpected, truth be told) beauty justice.
The DVD has both films presented on one disc. Extras are a little light, trailers for each film, and a great introduction from Jasper Sharp that really puts the films in the contemporary context.