Vengeance is Hers: Lady Snowblood (1973)

July 4, 2017


Lady Snowblood (1973) is an aria of arterial spray, gushing in myriad patterns against a variety of white fabrics. It takes Jean-Luc Godard’s tossed off comment that the blood in Pierrot Le Fou (1965) is “Not blood” but “red” to its logical conclusion, a festival of artfully composed throat-slittings and torso hackings. Blood spits out of human bodies like when Mentos are dropped into a bottle of Diet Coke. It frames killing as pure artifice, executed with impassive grace by the beautiful Meiko Kaji, seeking revenge for the mother she never knew. The story is faithfully adapted from the original comic book, of a child marked from birth to be a vengeance machine, to hunt down her mother’s tormentors regardless of the sacrifices to her own life. One of the greatest comic-book adaptations, it serves as the template for all subsequent female one-man-army films, from Ms. 45 (1981) to Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) all the way up to the upcoming Atomic Blonde (2017).

Lady Snowblood was originally published in 1972-1973 in the adult mag Weekly Playboy, and has remained in print ever since. It was written by Kazuo Koike (the creator of Lone Wolf and Cub) and illustrated by Kazuo Kamimura. Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub was adapted into a film series starting in 1972, and so Lady Snowblood grabbed the attention of independent producer Kikumaru Okuda of Tokyo Films (the film was produced by Okuda and distributed by Toho). Okuda had mob affiliations, and according to Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld, he cultivated a relationship with Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, for whom he helped to recruit customers and collect debts for its Japanese clientele. With the help of two enforcers, he would chisel millions from gamblers, inflating their real debt numbers and collecting the difference.  He was eventually arrested by Tokyo authorities in 1975 for extorting millions. His last producing credit is on the 1976 Kris Kristofferson film The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea.

Regardless of the dubious source of funding, the production had the support of Toho, and a talented crew was hired. Director Toshiya Fujita and star Meiko Kaji were plucked from Nikkatsu, having both worked together on two of the popular female gang Stray Cat Rock movies (Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo [1970] and Stray Cat Rock: Beat ’71 [1971]). Kaji  had most recently finished the violent women-in-prison flick Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972), which cemented her as the exploitation actress of the moment. Fujita was gaining admirers as a director of sensitive youth-in-revolt films like Wet Sand in August (1971), but Lady Snowblood would eclipse everything else in his career, rightly or wrongly.

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The story concocted by Koike is a corker. Meiko Kaji plays Yuki, a stone-faced killing machine who was born in prison in 1874 during a snowfall, early in the Meiji period of growing Western influence. Her mother Sayo (Miyoko Akaza) ended up in prison because of cruel fate. She had once had a family, but stood by helplessly as they were slaughtered by a group of swindlers. The gang was promising peasants they could avoid the draft if they paid them a fee. During this period there was a feared group of government agents who always wore white – Sayo’s husband (the new elementary teacher) – happened to be wearing white while the gang was swept up in anti-government fervor. So they killed him and their child, and subjected Sayo to rape and degradation. From here on out white is a symbol of death, all it is good for is to be a canvas for blood.

Sayo obsessively seeks revenge. Her plot spans lifetimes. After killing one of the gang members in flagrante delicto, she is sent to prison. Knowing she will never get out alive to finish off the four remaining gang members, she instead focuses on getting pregnant, and then training the baby to carry on her vengeance for her. Instead of lullabies, Sayo tells her baby daughter Yuki: “do not fail to destroy our enemies.” A prison pal smuggles Yuki out to train in martial arts with Priest Dōkai (Kō Nishimura), who drills her relentlessly until she can roll down a hill inside of a barrel without crashing. Yuki becomes a vessel for Sayo’s hatred, what she calls a “asura,” a Buddhist demigod entirely subject to their passions, sort of a saint who submits to the seven deadly sins. Yuki invokes the “asura” to efface her own humanity, for if she is a demigod she has no need for earthly passions or relationships. Pretending to be divine is what is keeping her sane.

Yuki kills with effortless precision and grace, hiding her blades inside of gorgeous kimonos, flashing out of her sleeves before the aghast victim stops admiring her beauty. The violence is always quick, the killings faster than the blood spurts that follow – and my goodness the blood flows like wine, in a wide variety of spray patterns. There is the fine mist of a throat slit, the goopy entrails of a torso slash and the slow river of a sword into the gut. And invariably the blood splashes against a white background, creating instant Jackson Pollock like art. Tarantino very clearly borrowed the structure of Lady Snowblood for the flashback segmented Kill Bill, but also retains an enthusiasm for the explosive fake blood squib, seen to gargantuan effect in Django Unchained (2012).

And while Lady Snowblood delivers the exploitation goods, it is also a remarkably affecting character study, of a woman denying herself to fulfill her mother’s wishes. What Yuki will have left over of herself after committing her deadly deeds is an open question. What we are left with is more blood on the ground, a snowfall soaking up her wounds as she grasps towards a dwindling future. Next week – I’ll see how she recovers in Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance.