An act of vengeance is a simple procedure when you are a trained samurai warrior who can fight your way through one hundred armed men without breaking a sweat. Your entire life has been dedicated to the cause of violence revenge, and you have been trained to overcome any hurdle necessary to further along your mission as speedily as possible. One hundred warriors are therefore a stepping stone, not a blockade.
As a samurai, the repercussions of vengeance is where its murkiness lies, because vengeance by definition is a process that requires life-consuming preparation that blocks everything in your path except your ultimate, bloody mission. Or, as Lady Snowblood’s mentor tells her, “You are to know no love, no hate, no sadness, no anger. Only vengeance.” And so we are left with the inevitable question: After your vengeance is complete, what do you do with a life that has seemingly lost its reason to exist? Retribution is thus a tricky game of irony: As your enemies lose their lives, so too you lose your purpose. As you stand over your last dead enemy, what do you do now? Most of the time, you haven’t thought that far ahead.
Many great samurai films deal with this dilemma, as do the greatest of Japanese ronin myths. Have you heard of the legend of Chushingura, in which forty-seven ronins dedicated their lives to avenge the death of their master? More extraordinary than their eventual revenge is what immediately followed: After these warriors succeeded, they performed mass hari-kari, and the matter was settled. The point of their lives was to honor their master; it was a cause so great that their collective suicide was simply the signifier that their mission was accomplished. We in the West are tempted to interpret their self-termination as a pointless final act of a meaningless existence, but no—to them, their existence meant only vengeance, and when it was complete, so were they.
But Chushingura deals with old men quietly resolved to their fate. What if this creature of vengeance is but a beautiful, twenty-year old girl, who finds her purpose in life dissolved before she has ever experienced the full spectrum of human experience? Lady Snowblood concerns itself with such a question: After her vengeance finds its end, we suppose that the girl can now finally start pondering topics such as love, hate, sadness, and anger, but imagine how difficult such a direction seems when you have been trained to remove these emotions forever from your person. The warrior within her soul finally transforms into the personality that was robbed from her; she is now a frightened, lost orphan with no one to take her in and nothing to claim as her own. The film’s final image—of the lethal assassin sobbing face-down in the snow, her reason for being as dead as her enemies—is the ultimate, tragic point of the blood-spattered film preceding it. It is perhaps the most hauntingly sad image in all of samurai cinema.
Lady Snowblood was released in Japan in 1973, when the samurai genre was in full swing and had already produced countless variations of their mythic tales of wandering ronins and revenge-laced massacres. Characters like Sanjuro, Zatoichi, and similar, soft-spoken males with deadly accuracy had become staples of Japanese moviegoers. The best of these films looked beyond the limitations of their often ridiculously violent archetypes—among them the iconic, ludicrous images of blood spurting out of wounds like outpours from burst fire hydrants—and speculated on the nature of depravity contained in such tales. The four films featuring Toshiro Mifune as the samurai Sanjuro, for example, reveal a progression into darkness in his character; with each new kill, he clearly loses a little bit more of his soul and replaces it with alcoholic depression.
Lady Snowblood is based on a series of popular mangas (Japanese graphic novels) of the same name, and it details the journey of a girl who has been trained since infancy to avenge the death of her parents. Her father (or step-father, I suppose) was gruesomely murdered by four crime lords. Her mother was then kidnapped, raped repeatedly, and thrown into prison, where she carefully thought out her method for revenge: To produce a child for the specific purpose of avenging the injustices against her parents (in some well-shot flashback scenes that are as frantic as they are dissolute, the woman sleeps with as many guards as necessary to get pregnant). This is a story that has much in common with any number of samurai films produced around the same time; the distinguishing gimmick of Lady Snowblood, of course, is that this child grows up to be a beautiful woman instead of a Mifune-esque, saké-guzzling ronin.
Lady Snowblood is certainly among the most beloved of this genre, not least of all because of its ferocious, brutal audacity. Stylistically, the film is quite literally a gory ballet in which characters virtually dance along sets and props as they slash their swords at each other. The comic-book images of a beautiful female warrior dispatching armed men with her deadly blade and killer umbrella ensure that the film will at least be more visually memorable than many of its peers.
But more fascinating are the moments of contemplative stillness sandwiched in between these violent bursts. Such low-key moments reveal psychological complexities essential to understanding the film’s eventual significance, which is not as a merely gruesome action tale, but rather as a cheerless meditation on the repercussions of Lady Snowblood’s sadistic existence. The ambiguous morals of her mother, who would have to be monstrous herself to transform her own daughter into a machine of violence, is never addressed directly, but the matriarchal sins are clear in the subtle twitches of humanity that Lady Snowblood displays in the moments when she sits by herself, not engaged in warfare. Here is an innocent, shaped into a demon so reprehensible that she is told, “Even Buddha cannot forgive your sins.” Her mentor quite literally calls her “a child of the netherworld” (basically the Japanese variation of hell), because her lifestyle inevitably can lead to no other fate. So the question remains: Are those who created her any better for imposing this life on her than those who she has been trained to destroy? This issue is never openly considered by the film’s characters—not least of all by Lady Snowblood herself, who does not have the luxury of independent thought. But the film at least is aware of this contradiction, and it creates images and subtexts that let us know it is aware of its own inconsistency.
An example: The film’s most memorable scene takes place on a beach, where Lady Snowblood drags one of her drunken enemies onto a rocky shore and calmly, even gently, explains to him who she is and why she is about to slaughter him “without mercy or forgiveness.” We know, of course, that she doesn’t even understand the meanings of such words, let alone their repercussions. Watching her explain why she is about to kill this man plays like a chilling moment of rehearsed dialogue; this girl has been trained to explain the motivations behind her revenge, and when he asks for leniency, her answer is given as if it is on cue. It is a crucial moment in the film—perhaps the crucial moment—because it reveals the mental simplicity of Lady Snowblood’s decisions. She has no will of her own; her thought-processes have literally been manufactured by those who have raised her for this cause. Later, as she silently drags the corpse over the edge of a cliff, she stares into its dead face, pauses, and—wait, is that a hint of hesitation in her eyes? It’s gone in a flash so we can’t be sure, but we remember her pause for the rest of the film. Such ambiguity carries the weight of the picture’s subtle intricacy.
Certainly any film dealing with bloody revenge will be unnerving, simply because of the images of death and hatred that it evokes. Obviously, the most disturbing element of Lady Snowblood is Mekio Kaji’s marionette-like portrayal of the title character. This is a bizarre comparison, but Kaji’s mannerisms and emotionless face reminded me of Klaus Nomi, the New Wave rock star who dressed up as a porcelain doll for his concerts. The contrast of his innocent, childlike complexion with his creepily ethereal music forced his audience to unite two elements with seemingly nothing in common. Kaji’s performance solicits a similar reaction. She isn’t required to create a multifaceted character so much as she must allow the discomforting dissimilarity between her stiff, synthetic mannerisms and her violent actions speak for itself. Perhaps this is why her name is “Snowblood”—the name represents the strong distinction between white (purity) and red (anger, violence), and yet it forces them together into one identity.
The film focuses on similar contrasts throughout, particularly in the way it looks sadly on Western culture as it seeps into and takes over old Japanese ethics and traditions. Lady Snowblood represents ancient warrior codes, and her opponents progress (or regress) from these aged ideas into organized crime clearly influenced by the Western mafia. The final showdown between Snowblood and her last living adversary occurs in the most unlikely place—a masquerade ball, in which everyone listens to American music and dances Western waltzes. The final image of death—Snowblood’s enemy clutching both the American and the Japanese flag as he bleeds to death—is very curious indeed, particularly in the way that one of the flags finally drapes over his dead face. I won’t give away which flag eventually covers him; I will only say that his grasp for both perhaps reveals why he must die at Snowblood’s hands: He has forgotten his heritage, particularly its strict system of justice and honor, and he has replaced this legacy with an indifferent entrepreneurship that ultimately cannot save him, and even destroys him.
Lady Snowblood is directed by Toshiya Fujita, whose only other noteworthy picture is this film’s sequel (which is nearly a masterpiece on par with its predecessor). Fujita basically needs two successful elements to ensure that this is a good film: Visual skill for the action sequences and the ability to evoke an effectively terrifying performance out of Kaji. He passes this test, and goes beyond the call of duty to elevate his film into greatness. Yes, he consistently finds the correct note for his violent ballet, and Kaji is certainly an imposing force of violence. But he also makes her a helplessly tragic character, and his skills behind the camera have an intrinsic quality beyond samurai conventions. Note the way he shoots so much of the film from a bird’s eye view, as if the viewer is God (or Buddha) as He watches the proceedings from above, judging all the characters according to their deeds. Also pay close attention to the names of the various chapters that separate the acts, and how images in each of these segments cleverly reflect these titles. Fujita, perhaps aware of the film’s comic book origins, also effectively utilizes freeze-frames to accentuate certain revelations that he wants to use as signposts for later events. It’s a simple but useful filmmaking strategy. Combined, these techniques take a fairly routine plot and turns it into an epic parable that plays sort of like a Shakespearian tragedy in the way it fabricates characters of complex moral motivations and plummets them, slowly and assuredly, to their gory doom.
Lady Snowblood and its sequel have maintained a cult-following in America since their original releases, but in Japan, they are rightfully considered classic cinema and have always been thusly honored. Today, the films are noteworthy to Western audiences primarily for their obvious inspiration over Quentin Tarantino’s two Kill Bill pictures, which lifted plot elements, music, story structure, and even crucial shots from the Snowblood epics. Tarantino, of course, intended these lifts as homage, and Kill Bill therefore plays not as a rip-off but as a love letter to Fujita. We must be thankful to Tarantino for his devotion to the samurai genre, since his films have certainly brought little gems like Snowblood into the West’s attention. It is delightfully ironic that Fujita’s films deal with Western influence over Japanese culture, as Tarantino’s Western-made followups clearly could not have existed without these undeniably Eastern contributions. Watch the Snowblood films together with the Kill Bill volumes, and you’ll get see good examples of well-told revenge tales that respond to each others’ ideas on the corrupt consequences of revenge. By the time your marathon is over, Fujita and Tarantino’s protagonists might be closer to finding purpose beyond their retribution, but it’s still been a bloody, tragic, and always compelling path to final redemption.
A.K.A. Princess Snowblood
Meiko Kaji: Lady Snowblood
A Toho Films release. Directed by Toshiya Fujita. Written by Kazuo Uemura and Kazuo Koike. No M.P.A.A. rating, but contains strong violence/gore, language, and sexuality. Running time: 97 minutes. Original year of release date: 1973. In Japanese, with English subtitles.
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