A young woman walks through a darkened, but clearly artificial movie set (it’s fake snowing too). A group of men carrying their master demand she get out of their way. This little flower will not budge. Suddenly she pulls a kitana blade concealed inside an umbrella and turns the men before her into sushi-sized portions. The blood gushes deep red, the sound effects deliberately over-emphasised, cold steel cuts through warm flesh and bone. Welcome to Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 masterpiece Lady Snowblood.
Watching the film, it is clear as day how much this title influenced Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Cinema’s great magpie not only used star Meiko Kaji’s beautiful ballad, Shura No Hana, the American director lifted the non-chronological narrative structure (a device he’s associated with a lot), the use of chapter titles, a female villain, a snow-bound finale and even the same low angle shots introducing the five people the assassin is charged with taking down. If Kill Bill was a roaring rampage of revenge then Lady Snowblood is a samurai smackdown of sublime skill.
There is a real sense of elegance and daring that makes Fujita’s movie a complete cinematic joy. A revenger’s tragedy plays out with a mixture of classic narrative and avant-garde techniques. At one point, Yuki’s story is turned into literature by an enterprising journalist (who dubs her Lady Snowblood thus creating an instant mythology, much like we’d find in the Wild West). She becomes famous across Japan. We suddenly go from private (within the film’s narrative) to sensationalised (the reaction to Yuki’s story). Based on a manga series, Fujita brings a meta-textual frisson that might appear too clever but instead – due to the playful directorial approach, anyway – delivers a real free-wheelin’ tone to the whole conceptual package.
The fight scenes, too, make up only a fraction of the fun as the fireworks come from the film’s style as much as the swordplay. But when the stand-offs and showdowns come, the blood erupts with the force of a geyser. Yet the occasional cartoon excess are underscored by a moving story of a young woman raised to avenge the death of her parents. She knows nothing else and perhaps never will do. Yuki’s tale is tragedy.
Meiko Kaji puts in an iconic performance as flower of vengeance, Yuki. People do not refer to her as a troubled young girl hellbent on righting wrongs, she attains a nightmarish persona, several times referred to as an entity not of humanity but the netherworld. Yuki is trained to assassinate the gang whom murdered her parents. A political subtext also underpins Lady Snowblood, as Japan is undergoing a cultural transition and Western ideas and economic force growing as a presence. Lady Snowblood and her mission could be the last of a kind … where old ideals meet much more modern considerations, a sentiment very much echoed in Sam Peckinpah’s elegiac western The Wild Bunch.
How’s the picture and sound?
In a word: stunning. Arrow Video often deliver top digital transfers and this fine tradition continues here with a new HD (1080p) job. The DVD (it’s released in dual format) is standard defintion. The colours are beautiful – especially the gushing blood that positively glistens. The film has been given new subtitle work and there’s the option to watch it without. Sound presented is: Original uncompressed PCM Mono Audio (if you wanted to know/care.)
Bonus material is slim pickings but does boast an informative chat with Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp and an entire movie – the sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance. Sharp is entirely correct when he says it would be a great shame for Kill Bill fans to either miss or dismiss Lady Snowblood on the pretext it’s old and in Japanese language. The sequel, whilst nowhere near as great as the original, is solid fare (3-stars). Also included is a booklet (which we didn’t have to review, unfortunately) and a couple of trailers.
This katana-wielding femme cuts a swath through inferior exploitations titles – yes, including Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Like Lady Snowblood herself, Toshiya Fujita’s flick is not to be dismissed lightly. Experimental, and at times downright avant-garde, this 1973 Japanese revenge thriller is a first-class movie. Accept no substitute.
Extra Features Rating:
When’s it out?
Monday 24th September in dual format and SteelBook edition