not in our stars, but in ourselves
She has the skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony of the (perhaps slightly better known) German fairy tale star, but the titular heroine of Lady Snowblood is no damsel in distress. Indeed, this vision of an assassin is probably a certain kind of male’s dream girl – but there’s little doubt that Lady Snowblood would eliminate such betas pretty quickly. (Talking to you, Quentin.)
Told in a somewhat linear fashion, the film begins somewhere around the beginning: after the centuries-long Edo period, the Meiji period brought about huge societal changes in Japan. As a result of these changes – a gang of thieves and rapists attacking her, her husband, and her son – Sayo Kashima (Miyoko Akaza) is in a women’s prison, giving birth to the child she hopes will carry on her vendetta. While Sayo had hoped her child would be a boy, her little girl Yuki is spirited away by one of the other inmates – to be raised with one goal and only one goal: find and kill the four people who ruined Sayo’s life. Yuki (Meiko Kaji) trains with a fearsome priest, Dōkai (Kō Nishimura), until she finally feels ready to complete her mission at age 20. She handily dispatches of all who oppose her, whipping her katana out of its hiding place in her pretty purple parasol at a moment’s notice. With some help from Matsuemon (Hitoshi Takagi), she tracks down her mother’s three remaining assailants (after Sayo herself seduced and murdered one of them, before her prison sentence): Takemura Banzō (Noboru Nakaya), Kitahama Okono (Sanae Nakahara), and the ringleader, Gishirō Tsukamoto (Eiji Okada). You can probably guess that she’s quite successful in her mission. It’s one of those movies.
Speaking of those movies: like many people of my generation, I saw Kill Bill long before Lady Snowblood. While I understood intellectually that the Tarantino films paid homage to various films of various genres – Japanese cinema in particular – I was able to see just how much of an homage Kill Bill: Volume 1 – I won’t say ripoff, mind you, I say “homage” – is to Lady Snowblood. We’ve got the general idea of tracking down several people who were responsible for a great wrong, many years after the fact (the Bride in pursuit of Bill and the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad); we’ve got the orphan seeking vengeance for her parents’ death – and then discovering that she’s very, very good at this revenge business (half-Chinese, half-Japanese, American-raised O-Ren Ishii); we’ve got the parent’s murderer understanding perfectly well that the child will likely come after her someday, and resigning herself to that eventuality (Yuki versus Banzō’s daughter here, the Bride versus Vernita Green’s little girl in Kill Bill); we’ve got snowy fight scenes with katanas; we’ve got a lone female who’s deadlier than scores and scores of men, plus the odd madwoman in their midst (the Bride versus the Crazy 88, featuring Gogo Yubari, in particular); and we’ve got the titillation that either the filmmaker or the audience or both feels for this badass bitch. Anyway, you get the idea. Quentin Tarantino has never been shy about celebrating other movies he loves in his own way (and he has, with the exception of his most recent, been quite good at it for the most part), but I was floored by how much of Beatrix Kiddo’s DNA is apparent in Yuki Koshima.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s actually look at the film itself. As I’ve said before, I always hesitate to offer even the weakest of insights when I’m talking about non-American and non-European cinema. This bothers me a bit as a history nerd, because I hate to divorce a film of its historical and cultural context, but I’m ignorant enough that I have to do it in this case. Perhaps that’s more freeing: reacting to the film qua film. (Ha, as if.) Well, anyway. Like plenty of American films of the 1970s, particularly those of the nascent slasher genre, Lady Snowblood absolutely gushes blood. The film was made on a low, low, low budget, and that’s readily apparent in some ways. The geysers of blood, meant to be set off with the sure slice of Lady Snowblood’s blade, don’t actually start spurting until the actor is able to press his hand to the capsule hidden on his person – thus getting the bloodbath going. There’s something about the effect – the hyperrealism of all that bright red corn syrup, literally changing the color of the sea after one kill – that’s far more artistic and beautiful than one would expect from a mere revenge flick.
As a matter of fact, I’d be remiss in my duties as a keen analyst of film aesthetics (hey, stop laughing!) if I didn’t note that Lady Snowblood is – despite or because of all the gallons of movie blood – absolutely gorgeous. Director Toshiya Fujita didn’t simply make an exploitation film. There would have been plenty of opportunities for, well, exploiting the female form and experience throughout – but Fujita doesn’t fall for any of that. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing: there were “pink” films in Japan, but this wasn’t one of them, however alluring we’re allowed to think Yuki looks. (It’s not until her final showdown with Goshirō that we see a hair out of place, for instance.) Whatever the reason, Fujita doesn’t trouble to sex things up. Instead, he ensures that cinematographer Masaki Tamura floods the screen with vibrant, gleaming, deeply saturated colors at all times: the rose-red blood syrup, the various royal purples and thistles and lavenders of Lady Snowblood’s (always faultless) ensembles, the cheery sunshiny yellow of flowers in a field, the emerald of bamboo trees, the ultramarine of the distant sea. As low-budget as it is, it looks like a work of art in every frame: the colors, the staging, the fight choreography – so simple it’s almost a form of abstraction – everything.
What does it all mean? Well…does it matter? Not everything is a political statement, or maybe everything is a political statement, depending on how much of a party pooper you are. Since I can view this only as a movie – not as an artifact of a time and place and culture with which I’m somewhat familiar – I would say that it is in some sense a deeply feminist story of vengeance. I would also say that it is, in some other sense, good dumb fun. It’s so rare that we furious feminists are permitted to sit back the way the boys do and watch one of our surrogates lay waste to an unfair and horrible world, without wondering or caring what it’s all really about. On the rare occasions when we are permitted that luxury, we ought to take it.