Lady Snowblood (1973)

This was originally written for The Black List’s “Essential Martial Arts Films” series. See here

Born in a female prison on a snowy winter’s night, Yuki Kashima is told by her mother, “You will live your life carrying out my vendetta.” The child has no choice in the matter. It is her destiny. Stray snowflakes fall on baby Yuki’s cheeks and the screen becomes awash with red. Lady Snowblood is born.

Yuki grows up to be a relentless assassin bent on avenging the death of her family; a woman whose sole purpose in life is vengeance, pure and simple. But this bloody vendetta is elevated to the level of visual poetry by director Toshiya Fujita. He creatively employs sophisticated narratives and gorgeous expressionistic photography to produce an impeccable balance of violence and beauty.

Lady Snowblood is fantastically played by Meiko Kaji, an icon of ’70s Japanese cinema, whose enormous ebony eyes perfectly convey the quiet ferocity, ethereal beauty and tragic reluctance of her character. We first encounter Kaji walking alone in the snow, primly dressed and twirling an umbrella. However, hidden within her umbrella is a samurai sword (a marvelous visual metaphor for her character as a whole); and when forced to use that sword, her snowy, pristine exterior instantly becomes covered in the blood of her victims. For this is a film in which blood does not ooze, drip or seep. It sprays — like a garden hose. Bright scarlet streams gush from the torn throats and severed limbs of Yuki’s targets as she hunts down those responsible for her family’s death.

The violence in the film is beautifully balletic. But it’s also messy and ultimately shown to solve very little. Yuki’s desire — or, more accurately, her need — for revenge only results in an endless cycle of carnage; a cycle wherein the only possible escape is through death.

Sadly, LADY SNOWBLOOD is still vastly underseen here in the west. However, its influence can be found in many places; perhaps most notably in the work of Quentin Tarantino — particularly his own Japanese revenge saga KILL BILL VOL. 1. The style, themes and even cinematography of KILL BILL owe an enormous debt to Fujita’s original. Even LADY SNOWBLOOD’s theme song “Shura No Hana” plays over the end credits of Tarantino’s film. And the similarities between Yuki and Lucy Liu’s character O-Ren Ishii are especially striking — not just in appearance, but also in a fondness for gory, violent showdowns in the snow.

LADY SNOWBLOOD is a terrific piece of high-minded pulp — a martial arts movie that perhaps leans more towards the “arts” than the “martial”. But that does not mean it is any less entertaining. So do seek out this little rhapsody of revenge. Seek it out and savor the tale of a woman forever forced to tread the line between life and death — a woman who immaculately embodies the carnage of karma.

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