Even the Criterion Collection’s own synopsis can’t help but mention that Lady Snowblood was a major influence on Kill Bill. Chances are, many who have seen this 1973 Japanese film within the past ten year or so, including myself, have done so only after having heard of its connection to Quentin Tarantino’s 2003-04 dual-volume feature. Make no mistake, though, released by Criterion along with its 1974 sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance, a lesser film in many regards, this is an exceptional movie in its own right, and a pleasant surprise from the estimable distribution company.
Beginning in a Tokyo prison circa 1874, a baby girl, Yuki, is born. Against the dazzling backdrop of a pelting snowstorm, she is delivered into a life of violence and unpleasantness, and is urged by her mother, even at this extremely early age, to carry out a long-gestating vendetta. Following a brutal attack, which started with the murder of her husband and son and ended with her gang rape, Yuki’s mother managed to kill one of the assailants, but was imprisoned soon thereafter. While incarcerated, she promiscuously bedded man after man in hopes of birthing a male heir who could inherit her vengeance. Instead, the remaining culprits are left to die by the sword of a daughter. Thick, pillowy white snowflakes turn red—the retaliation begins.
Dubbed an Asura—a demigod—and described at one point as a diabolical being from another realm, Yuki inhabits a world marred by corruption, debauchery, and greed. Against these surroundings, she is a singular figure righting the symbolic and literal wrongs for the weak and the incapable, and along the way, she is to finish what her mother started. Since the age of eight, she has trained to become silent, stoic, stealthy, and most of all, deadly: “Feel like a beast! Become a beast!” emboldens her instructor. As a woman possessed, there is no stopping the adult Yuki’s (Meiko Kaji) quest.
But all does not go as planned, at least not psychologically. Yuki’s first of three targets is a pathetic drunk, it is said that the second has died already, and the final confrontation likewise concludes with a disappointing termination (though that still doesn’t stop Yuki from enacting a degree of self-satisfying viciousness). This spirited crusade proves to be more emotionally taxing than she anticipated, and even as the revenge theme is carried along swiftly and efficiently, one senses that the motive is, in itself, unfulfilling.
To compound the apparent inadequacies of revenge, or at least to further challenge the suggestion that her mission is a distinct one, that a past of suffering is unique to her alone, Yuki meets an intrepid reporter and novelist, Ryûrei Ashio (Toshio Kurosawa), who takes an interest in her plight. Unbeknownst to her and the audience for a time, he too has his own agenda, albeit a seemingly sincere one. Yet a surprising connection emerges, one that causes Yuki to carry on her fight, and eventually a new cause for retribution simultaneously develops. What ultimately becomes clear is that vengeance goes around and around, becoming a complicated circle of familial conflict and reckoning. Though the sword-play is repeatedly thrilling for the viewer, if “revenge is a dish best served cold,” as Tarantino’s film quotes, then here the platter is bittersweet for Yuki, and perhaps not as palatable as its description once suggested.
With her dogged determinism and lifelong single-mindedness, Yuki appears to have missed out on much of what the world (granted, a hostile one) has to offer. Everything and everyone around her has moved on while she clings to a violent past. This is particularly the case in the Lady Snowblood sequel, which picks up in 1906, during an era of post-war upheaval. Yuki now roams an almost entirely dilapidated environment plagued by devastation and the wretched poverty-stricken. The film opens as she wanders within a derelict structure, partially falling down, adorned by cobwebs. It’s a sign of the times, but having now satisfied her avenging thirst, it also reflects her own lack of stability and optimistic perception. Yuki exits the building and walks straight ahead, the camera retreating in her path. Even as a swarm of attackers surround her, she deftly and defiantly moves forward, unflappably pushing on without a hint of apprehension. Such an assault has become routine and she dispatches the men with a casual precision. Unlike the fierce intensity of her reddened eyes piercing beyond the pastiness of her defiant face in Lady Snowblood, in Love Song of Vengeance, Yuki simply looks exhausted, though still certainly capable. The state of her weariness is evident under the title credits when, now sought for the murder of 37 individuals, she shockingly gives up the fight and is promptly arrested.
Lady Snowblood 2 is still an entertaining film, but as its more convoluted story plods along, it pales in comparison to the first movie’s vitality. Lady Snowblood has a fantastic narrative kept stimulating by titillating chapter breakdowns (“Chapter 1: A vow of vengeance. A thread of blood connecting love and hate,” “Chapter 2: Bamboo wives and tears of wrath.”) as well as the use of flashbacks, voiceover narration, and diverse illustrations providing backstory and historical context. Some of this is carried over to the sequel, but to a far lesser degree, and not near as prevalent in the second film are the numerous painterly compositions. Toshiya Fujita may have directed both films, and apparently both are rather atypical of his filmography otherwise (with which I’m admittedly unfamiliar), but the first is a more visually stirring work, with freeze-frames, zooms, colorful filters, and some of the best uses of primary reds, yellows, and blues east of Jean-Luc Godard. The artificial backdrops and exaggerated action sequences may be theatrically staged and enacted, but there is a dynamism to the unabashed artiness of the film’s production. And though both films were adapted from the same famous manga, it is the first that most adheres to the aesthetic designs of the source format.
By contrast, Lady Snowblood 2 is a more subdued film, in terms of pictorial intensity and tonal drive; even the setting is less lively, with grey skies, destitute locales, and a somber wind blowing frequently over the soundtrack. Compared to a scene like the first film’s masquerade ball finale, the second often appears washed out with less visual boldness (though it must be acknowledged that the new restoration of both movies still looks fantastic). The opening and closing fights of Lady Snowblood 2 are notable, containing choreographed sequences of single-take action in wide-shot, and there remain audible geysers of blood erupting in a stylish jet of arterial spray, but nothing in the second film compares to the vivid red splashing against the snow’s pristine whiteness, for example, just one example of the first movie’s spectacular contrast of synthetic, though nonetheless beautiful, color.
Concluding with the Kill Bill correlation, this type of Tarantino endorsement-by-way-of-allusion can often be a mixed bag; as good as his films are, not everything they nod to is equally worthwhile. Fortunately, and especially when taken together, the two Lady Snowblood films most assuredly live up to the associative reputation, and more at that.