Lady Snowblood – film review

Lady Snowblood
Directed by Toshiya Fujita
Limited Edition Blu-ray SteelBookâ„¢ and a 3-disc Blu-ray & DVD Dual Format Set
Released Monday 24 September 2012 

The hugely influential Lady Snowblood (1973) and its sequel Lady Snowblood: Love Song Of Vengeance (1974) have been affectionately restored and are released in a glorious Blu-ray edition for the very first time.

Made by the celebrated Japanese director Toshiya Fujita, these two blood-splattered Samurai masterworks are widely attributed as the main inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series of films; but do not let that put you off.

Fujita’s gory yet compassionate vision, featuring a towering performance by the gifted actress Meiko Kaji, is infinitely more poignant and effecting than Tarantino’s crude cartoon style homage, which took much from Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood movies, including the distinctive imagery, elements of the narrative, even the visual composition of the film.

Originally adapted from Kazuo Kioke and Kzuo Kamimura’s Manga comics, Lady Snowblood and its sequel Lady Snowblood: Love Song Of Vengeance both relate the warped saga of Yuki, a woman raised from birth for revenge.

Dexterously played by the beautiful but unyieldingly intense lead Meiko Kaji (Female Prisoner Scorpion, Blind Woman’s Curse), Lady Snowblood is the violent, yet persuasive saga of a woman’s search for revenge for deeds committed before she was even born. Yuki (Meiko Kaji) is born for retribution.  Conceived and delivered in prison by a mother, Kashima Sayo (Miyoko Akaza), who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. The infant Yuki is charged by her mother to seek revenge on the people who destroyed her life.

In 1873, during the Meiji era of Japanese history, Kashima Sayo, her husband (Masaaki Daimon), and young son were travelling to Koichi to take up the position of schoolmaster when bandits attacked them.  The villains killed the son and father, while Yuko’s mother was raped for days. ”¨Â  Kashima Sayo was able to kill one of the outlaws, by pretending to become his woman in Tokyo before stabbing him, but she was soon caught and incarcerated. In prison she slept with as many men as she could in order to conceive her ultimate weapon of vengeance.

Taken from the prison by the midwife, Mikazuki Otora, when her mother dies soon after she is born, Yuki is given to Dokai (Ko Nishimura), a priest who puts her through a very harsh course of combat training for the next twenty years.  He declares that she is from the ”Ëœnetherworld’ and that she must cleanse all emotions except that of retribution.  Her training complete, armed only with a Tanto short-blade sword concealed within a sharp edged parasol and the names of the three bandits who still live, Lady Snowblood sets out to fulfil her destiny.

Lady Snowblood is well above the average slice and dice Samurai film. The cinematography of acclaimed Japanese cinematographer Masaki Tamura is gorgeous, highlighting the spectacular costume designs and deliberately garish sets, Told in an intricate non-linear fashion, the film focuses more upon Yuki’s feelings (underpinned by Masaaki Hirao’s effective score) than just the swordplay (of which there is admittedly much fast and furious action, resulting in preposterous amounts of blood spraying out from wounds in prodigious quantities), and has an emphasis on style, while not relinquishing a firm grip on the plot.

Lady Snowblood is not just an imitation of Kazuo Koike’s more famous work (Koike also co-created the superficially similar Lone Wolf and Cub films); it is a unique movie that stands alone. Toshiya Fujita explicitly emphasises the outrageous lengths that Sayo will go to exact her revenge. Lady Snowblood is a pertinent example of what that type of revenge means, how it affects those involved in the narrative and also how it impinges on others upon the periphery of Yuki’s exploits.

The sequel ”“ Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance ”“ though lacking the tremendous narrative power of Yuki’s previous deeply personal revenge saga, is surprisingly good. In this picture Yuki is caught up in the corrupt and murderous world of Japanese politics.

The film opens brilliantly, in an almost lyrical style.  Lady Snowblood, Yuki, walks, with purposeful strides, through a park.  The camera pans back to reveal that police who are lying in wait to capture her. Hesitating to attack Yuki, she continues to march past them. Suddenly the police attempt to detain her but she deftly slays them all in quick succession.

Yuki escapes, but the police are resolute in their quest to track her down. They finally capture her on a beach, where Yuki surrenders.  Found guilty of murdering thirty-five men at her subsequent trial, she is sentenced to death. Briefly incarcerated in the very prison in which she was born in the first picture, Lady Snowblood is then transported to the location where her execution is to be carried out. However, she is then freed by agents of the Japanese secret police and offered a deal.  She can go to work for them as their secret assassin, or face extinction.

Her first target is an anarchist, Shusuke Tokunaga( Jûzô Itami) from which she must obtain a certain document, before killing the revolutionary.  While working for Shusuke as a maid, Yuki becomes sympathetic to the nobility of his cause. Yuki learns that men who recruited her for the assassination are actually corrupt officials who want Shusuke dead to further their own political interests. Yuki abandons her assignment and aligns herself with the radical and his cause.  The police capture Shusuke but Yuki escapes with the precious document and flees to slums where Shusuke’s brother (Yoshio Harada), a doctor, lives.  The violence escalates as the two political forces of anarchism and Japanese right wing militarism continue to battle, in director Fujita’s skilfully rendered period piece reflecting Japan’s turbulent history at the turn of the 20th century.

With the backdrop of the film focused on Japan’s Meiji period of restoration, wonderfully depicted by cinematographer Tatsuo Suzuki, there is a certain clumsiness in the recounting of this more political tale. Meiko Kaji’s Yuki tends to get lost within her own picture (Kaji’s performance appears less concentrated), while Kenjiro Hirose’s score perhaps reflects its 1970s origins more than it should.

Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance depicts the end of the old Samurai class system, and outside of a tale of retribution, the effect of these changes underlined.  This is the end of an era for the Samurai way of justice and the fitting close of the original Lady Snowblood chronicles.

Available as both a Limited Edition Blu-ray SteelBookâ„¢ and a 3-disc Blu-ray & DVD Dual Format Set, these releases contain the following special features:

  • Slicing Through the Snow: An exclusive, enthralling and highly informed filmed interview with Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp”¨- Collector’s booklet “The Crimson Kimono” by critic Tom Mes, illustrated with original stills.
  • Original theatrical trailers for both films”¨- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of both features
  • Newly translated optional English subtitles
  • Original Mono Audio (uncompressed PCM on Blu-ray)

All words by Ian Johnston. You can read more from Ian on LTW here.

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