Director: Toshiya Fujita
By Roderick Heath
The late ’60s and early ’70s were something of a golden age in Japanese commercial cinema, with rugged genre reinventions displaying a great confidence in a modernising milieu and industry. In particular, a number of electrifying, blood-lusting, visually chic jidai geki works like the Lone Wolf and Cub series initiated by Kenji Misumi and Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood cast a long shadow even on Hollywood filmmakers. A key correlation between these works is the way they contrast intense, heightened physical beauty captured in the crisp, muted colours Japanese cinematographers made their own in the era and rapturous pseudo-poetic stylisation with ruthless violence and aestheticised gore. Another more immediate link was the fact they were both based on the work of manga author Kazuo Koike, who also contributed to the scripts.
Lady Snowblood is particularly notable for offering a memorable heroine in Meiko Kaji’s Yuki Kashima, and for Fujita’s inventive, layered, pop-cinematic techniques. This jaw-dropping melodrama, set during the early Meiji period of the late 19th century, when Japan was undergoing tremendous social upheaval, offered fascinating cross-cultural blends in style and dress that have been a powerful fetish for anime artists. Fujita commences with a scene of birth that’s a bleak inversion of many a nativity scene, with Sayo Kashima (Miyoko Akaza) giving birth in prison, white snow falling outside, her red-clad fellow prisoners trying to midwife as she painfully and fatally gives life to Yuki. A jump cut reveals a grown Yuki, calling herself Lady Snowblood, taking on and besting in brutal fashion the bodyguards of a yakuza boss and then dispatching the boss with cold aplomb after describing herself as vengeance personified. This assassination, it soon proves, was on the behalf of the leader of a gang of beggars, Sir Matsuemon (Hitoshi Takagi), because the boss had dispossessed them of their village and left them to scrounge a living.
As repayment for her service, Yuki requests that Matsuemon and his followers find for her three ruffians, Banzô Takemura (Noboru Nakaya), Okono Kitahama (Sanae Nakahara), and Gishirô Tsukamoto (Eiji Okada). This trio and a fourth confederate, Tokuichi Shokei (Takeo Chii), were scamming peasants afraid of a government draft and murdered Sayo’s husband Gô (Masaaki Daimon), an innocent schoolteacher coming to take a rural post, to prove their ability to sniff out and fend off federal officials. They also slaughtered her young son and held her captive and raped her for days before Shokei dragged her to Tokyo as his concubine. There she knifed him during sex, a crime for which she was imprisoned, but Sayo made sure she got pregnant by screwing any man she could, with the intention of producing a child who could carry on her vengeance. In spite of Sayo’s death just after her birth, Yuki can remember her momentous entrance into the world. Raised by one of her mother’s fellow prisoners, Tajire no Okiku (Akemi Negishi), Yuki was roughly drilled in swordplay and athletic feats by Dôkai (Kô Nishimura), a priest and former government official who delighted in making Yuki an unwavering force of punishment for an increasingly corrupt, shapeless, despicable society.
Lady Snowblood is Fujita’s most famous and acclaimed film, and his formal innovation in telling his story is rich. The ritualistic form of much Asian action cinema is intact, with Yuki moving from target to target with relentless, mounting mayhem after intensive training in the art of killing. But Fujita essays the narrative in chapters, utilising a circular style in revealing the story that ties intricately to the what-goes-around-comes-around moral and multigenerational shape of the tale. Flashbacks and backstory points of reference are explicated in freeze frames, black-and-white sequences, illustrations from manga, constructing a substantiated vision of the motivating past filtered through artifice: Fujita makes explicit that the art of telling Lady Snowblood’s story is part of that story. It’s easy to see why the film was a profound model for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, and not merely in its thematic and stylistic preoccupations with the beautiful agent of apocalyptic destruction at its centre, but also because it utilises an imaginative, self-reflexive approach to telling a generic story that suggests boundaries extending beyond the immediate borders of the film.
The story is being recounted by an off-screen narrator, author and journalist Ryûrei Ashio (Toshio Kurosawa), who stumbles upon Yuki’s tale when he visits the grave of Tsukamoto and passes by Yuki, who’s outraged to find one of her nemeses is dead and has assaulted his tombstone instead and sliced the heads off the decorating flowers. Ryûrei learns Yuki’s story from Dôkai, who hopes that the story might flush out Yuki’s last opponent, Okono, now a yakuza matriarch. Ryûrei turns Yuki’s biography into a popular book, introducing a note of meta-textual irony to the proceedings, especially when Ryûrei begins “Chapter Four” only to have the villain of the piece walk in to tell him to stop. The title’s motif is constantly reflected, both literally—much blood gushes out upon the snowy streets—and metaphorically, the contrasting textures of pure snow and sticky gore reflecting the perverse disconnect between Yuki’s serene appearance and inner demons. These demons manifest in her wide, remarkable eyes, with their reddened rims burning in her almost spectrally pale face, offered in awe-stoking close-up. It’s also there in the careful costuming and set décor in the opening birth sequence, and repeated through the reiteration of the image of emanations from the “netherworld,” a blood-red snow that cleanses.
Lady Snowblood came out of an era in which women were becoming both more overtly heroic and yet more often brutalised on screen, especially in Japanese films, concurrent with the increasing international profile of women’s lib (it’s revealing that Kaji, who had risen out of sexploitation films at Nikkatsu Studios, fled to Tohei as Nikkatsu went deeper into producing “pink” porn-and-violence movies). Although they’re far more common now, Yuki is one of the first and truest ass-kicking women of cinema, and though the film hardly celebrates ruthless violence inflicted by anyone, this telling social dimension of the story plugs into a broader mythology of generational revolt and historical anger. Yuki’s first claimed scalp of her mission elucidates a theme of female exploitation, in presenting Banzô as a wash-up living off his daughter Kobue (Yoshiko Nakada), who pretends to make baskets but is actually whoring herself out. Banzô gambles the money some of her clients give to him, trying to cheat, with Yuki rescuing him from the clutches of yakuza only to confront him on a stormy beach and slice him open after asking, “Look into my eyes. Do I remind you of someone you once raped?”
The sins of the fathers are indeed being repaid, and Yuki finds an enemy in Kobue, but also an unexpected helpmate in Ryûrei, who is, she learns in shock after saving him from Okono’s clutches, is actually the son of Tsukamoto. Worse yet, his father isn’t actually dead, having faked his demise to escape investigations into his smuggling operations, a fact of which Ryûrei is unaware until his father comes to him and tells him to desist in recording Yuki’s tale. Ryûrei is a scurrilous muckraker assaulting the new order of things, whereas his father has become a war-profiteer, engaging in building up Japan’s military force and hosting parties for international guests to cover and help his secret arms deals. Yuki and Ryûrei crash one of his masked balls to do him in, leading to a familial bloodbath in which Ryûrei tries to hold Tsukamoto still long enough for Yuki to stab him while father empties bullet after bullet into his son’s body. Yuki skewers them both, and Tsukamoto plunges over the balcony into the midst of his horrified guests, pulling with him the Rising Sun flag (and the US flag nearly goes with it), in an image that’s as metaphorically radical as above-ground Japanese cinema gets.
Then again, an interesting aspect of post-WWII Japanese genre cinema, especially of the historical variety, tends to be its outright cynicism over institutions and social roles of the past, unlike many equivalent western genres, like Hollywood and British swashbucklers, Italian peplum, or pre-Peckinpah westerns, instead fixating on warriors and nobles and yet very often portraying a corrupt, decaying, brutal world. Figures as grimly determined as Yuki or Lone Wolf and Cub’s Itto Ogami, or outcast, like Zatoichi, are heroic merely by standing for a principle and their towering skills. Kaji was a big star with young pop-loving audiences, sustaining a recording career simultaneously with her acting; her appeal was pitched for that generation, and one of the films she followed Lady Snowblood with was the antisocial Bonnie and Clyde variant Jeans Blues (1974). Yuki, the narrator reminds us, possesses a compassionate heart underneath her stoic exterior, and meets a soul-cracking problem when she thinks her mission is over and faces potential romance with Ryûrei; her entire life is predicated to a violent mission that puts her, as Dôkai says, beyond even Buddha’s redemption. And yet her rampage seems connected to natural justice, finding echoes in the snow and the waves that wash about Banzô’s body, white foam staining red.
The film’s cool hysteria is remarkable. Fujita eschews all but the most basic stunts for Yuki to perform (a stink bomb hidden in her hair is as fancy as her tricks get), and in spite of the stylistic flourishes, Lady Snowblood walks a tricky tightrope that offsets lyricism and action with a raw realism. It doesn’t quite belong in the same fantastic world of superhuman protagonists as other such films, even when taking into account such wacko moments as Yuki recalling the scene of her own birth and holding an unspoken conversation with nemesis Tsukamoto. Fujita realises some startling images, like the prepubescent Yuki stripping off her dress and dodging Dôkai’s sword strokes, sucking on the wound he leaves on her arm with fearless bloodlust, and Yuki’s final anguished scream as she touches a handful of bloodied snow to her face. Multitalented star Kaji (she’ll be 63 in March) had, after leaving Nikkatsu, found proper stardom in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, and later gained her highest accolades in a film version of classical playwright Chikamatsu’s Sonezaki Shinju (1978). Yuki is a role that suits her dark, marauding intensity perfectly, and she also sings Yuki’s gorgeously melancholy theme song (I also recommend the compilation of her various film themes and pop hits, “Zenkyoku Shu,” one of my favourite albums ever) that punctuates the start and conclusion of the film: the rest of the film’s jazz-pop score, by Masaaki Hirao, is terrific too.
The third-act complication, of course, removes Yuki’s moral quandary by killing off Ryûrei and leaving her to stumble away from the carnage, with one of Tsukamoto’s bullets in her, to receive another indelible wound from Kobue’s dagger. Yuki crawls away, bawling in crushing existential anguish at where her life has led her. But right or wrong, good or bad, Yuki simply refuses to die, and the film ends with her looking up to the rising sun, still hovering between worlds. Of course, Fujita and Kaji reunited for a sequel the following year.