Directed by: Toshiya Fujita.
Written by: Kazuo Kamimura & Kazuo Koike & Norio Osada.
Starring: Meiko Kaji (Yuki Kashima), Ko Nishimura (Priest Dōkai), Toshio Kurosawa (Ryūrei Ashio), Yoshiko Nakada (Kobue), Masaaki Daimon (Gō Kashima), Miyoko Akaza (Sayo Kashima), Eiji Okada (Gishirō Tsukamoto), Sanae Nakahara (Kitahama Okono), Noboru Nakaya (Takemura Banzō), Takeo Chii (Shokei Tokuichi), Hitoshi Takagi (Matsuemon), Akemi Negishi (Tajire no Okiku), Kō Nishimura (Dōkai), Masaaki Daimon (Teacher), Mayumi Maemura (Young Yuki).
It’s no secret that Quentin Tarantino is a movie lover, who recycles the films he is inspired by into his own work. Whether you believe he does this an act of homage, or as outright theft, is open for debate – but Tarantino has never been shy about his influences, or singing their praises. It is very possible that without Tarantino, a film like Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood would not have been given the Criterion treatment – making this little seen cult item available in a wonderful package for all to see. The film is one of the clear inspiration for Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill (2003-2004), and I have little doubt that if this film had been as widely available a decade ago as it is now, Tarantino likely would have faced much of the same criticism he did on Reservoir Dogs (1992) in relation to Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987) – that he crosses that line between homage and theft. I’m not sold on that idea – for either movie. City on Fire isn’t a particularly good movie, and while the story is similar to Reservoir Dogs, the execution is different. Lady Snowblood is far better than City on Fire, and Tarantino does borrow whole shots from Fujita, but it’s still filtered through Tarantino. He has the talent to take whatever his influences are, and mix them up and come up with something that is both highly derivative and highly original at the same time.
But enough about Tarantino (for now anyway), because while it is impossible for anyone who has seen Kill Bill not to think of that film while watching Lady Snowblood (the music in the opening credits here is used in Kill Bill, making the comparison immediate), it does deserve its own space and reputation apart from Tarantino. This is a terrifically entertaining film – bloody and violent in the extreme, and wonderfully staged by Fujita. But the film also works on a character level, as Meiko Kaji delivers an excellent performance as Yuki – a young woman who is raised to be a killing machine, and nothing else – but retains an essential humanity that is quietly heartbreaking. The plot is intricately structured as well – with flashbacks, and multiple characters who are effected. There is, apparently, a political element to the film as well – it’s set during a time when Japan was opening to the West – but to be honest, that aspect of the film was mainly lost on me – not knowing my Japanese history intimately.
The movie opens with Yuki’s birth – to a female prisoner, inside a jail, during a snowstorm – it’s a dramatic birth, and the opening credits gives us the first mixing of the pure white snow, and the bright red of blood, that will mix throughout the film. From there, the film bounces back and forth in time – to explain how Yuki’s mother got to jail in the first place, and why she says she got pregnant purely for the purpose of revenge – and then 20 years into the future, when Yuki really starts to track down a group of criminals – one by one – to exact the revenge her mother so desperately wanted (there are a few stops along the way at Yuki’s not so great childhood – including training at the hands of a ruthless priest).
It wouldn’t be unfair to categorize Lady Snowblood as a movie about the futility of revenge – there have been many of those over the years, but it wouldn’t be entirely accurate either. The men (and woman) that Yuki are going after truly are despicable – or at least, did a despicable thing to Yuki’s family – even if it’s a family she never knew, so it’s hard to feel too bad for them. And yet, the movie is ultimately about the cost revenge has on Yuki – who is referred to throughout the movie as an “asura” – a demon sent from the dead to get revenge. But Yuki is not the emotionless killer that the title of asura would suggest. When she meets the daughter of one of the men is going to kill – she feels genuinely bad for her, as will the audience when they find out her tragic backstory. Another story of family trauma is lived out through Ryūrei Ashio (Toshio Kurosawa), a reporter who allows himself to be used by Yuki for her own ends. On and on throughout the movie, the sins of the parents are visited upon their children – who one way or another, have to pay for them.
The movie is striking visually, from its opening frames. The film is based on a manga, and there are a few moments, where the film tells its story as if in a manga (not the full on anime, like the sequence in Kill Bill – but the 1970s version of that). Fujita borrows heavily from that sort of imagery throughout the film in other ways as well – the close-ups on the characters eyes for example. When blood is spilled in Lady Snowblood – and it happens a lot – there’s not a little bit of blood, but a lot. Walls get sprayed with it, and in one memorable shot a man who is killed in the ocean turns the all the water around him red as he dies. You wouldn’t be mistaken to say this is comic book style violence – but the violence here does lay a mark. This isn’t cartoon violence with no consequences.
Lady Snowblood will now forever be linked to Kill Bill- there really is no way to fight that, and perhaps we shouldn’t. Without Tarantino’s film, I don’t think Criterion would have reached into the vault for this film – not because it isn’t worthy, but because they are mainly an auteur label, and Fujita isn’t the first name to come to mind when speaking of Japanese cinema. But because of Kill Bill, we can now see this gem of 1970s Japanese film. Yes, it’s interesting to see where Tarantino got his ideas (or stole them, depending on your view point). But Lady Snowblood is much more than just the inspiration for Tarantino – and now, we can all see why he loved it so much.