I’ve said it repeatedly already, but it’s still relevant: beyond just wanting to widen my horizons on Japanese cinema, one of the main reasons I want to watch films from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s is their outsized influence on later filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino is outspoken on the influence Japanese cinema has had on his pictures, with Kill Bill in particular owing much to Lady Snowblood (1973).
I’m not sure why, but I actually thought this was going to be set in contemporary Japan, in the 1960s or ‘70s. Of course, it’s actually set in the early Meiji period (fun connection – around the time Yojimbo is set, with a similar mix of swordsmanship and Occidental gunplay, but without the Old West vibe Kurosawa’s movie had). The titular Lady Snowblood goes on a red hot rampage of revenge against the gang that wronged her family and – well, that’s it. It is, I must admit, a genre convention that I love, from straight takes on it (Commando, John Wick, the end of Wanted) to subversive demonstrations of the futility of revenge (Oldboy, I Saw the Devil). Ironically I’m not actually a big fan of Kill Bill, though I like vol. 1 more than vol. 2; Django Unchained is more my speed.
Language nerd trivia: the Japanese title is “Shurayuki-hime”, a play on “Shirayuki-hime”, or Snow White. The ‘white’ part is is swapped with 修羅 (shura), meaning scene of carnage – so Lady Snowblood is not quite a literal translation but certainly rolls off the tongue better.
So how does Lady Snowblood rank up against other exploitation revenge movies? Like many in the genre, it works primarily because of the actor in the lead role. Taken would just be a bad movie without Liam Neeson’s very particular set of skills, and without Meiko Kaji, I’m not sure there’d be much to Lady Snowblood, either. Of course, it is somewhat difficult to compare her performance to other major roles for Japanese women in older films, because they hardly seem to exist. In the films I’ve reviewed so far women are mainly relegated to hapless love interests (Chieko Matsubara in the Outlaw Gangster VIP series, Keiko Tsushima in Seven Samurai) or Lady Macbeth-like schemers (Isuzu Yamada in Throne of Blood, admittedly perfect in the role, or Toshie Kimura as Yamamori’s wife in Battles Without Honour and Humanity, likewise).
While I’m sure there are other films out there with female protagonists – and Meiko Kaji appears to star in several of them – I have yet to see them. Interestingly, in an interview with Chris D. for Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film, Kaji mentions she was essentially typecast in the ‘strong woman’ role in her early films at Nikkatsu, saying that:
I was tending to get cast as strong women, and the company steered me to continue with that kind of role. It was a company policy… to aim in the direction each actress seemed to be naturally heading.
Also notable: she sings the theme song, and it’s pretty great:
As Tarantino re-used it in on the Kill Bill OST, it’s more widely available than you’d expect.
Speaking of the Outlaw movies, it’s fun watching this alongside them, as the effects work for blood and wounds seems to have come on leaps and bounds since the late ‘60s. Squibs explode, limbs are removed, torsos cleaved in two. I’m less sure about how I feel on Snowblood’s signature somersault, but I’ll let it slide – the swordplay makes up for it. It all feels remarkably modern, but maybe that’s just because modern cinema owes so much to the over the top nature of grindhouse movies.
There’s a decent enough plot in between the killing, with a couple of slightly predictable twists. It doesn’t unfold entirely chronologically either, which only heightens the Tarantino connection. I was however waiting for another shoe to drop with writer Ashio, who (anti-spoiler) isn’t actually Snowblood’s older brother, raised by one of her revenge targets, which I was very much expecting.
As a straight-up revenge movie, I could actually have gone for more action and revenge – I was expecting the finale at the Rokumeikan to be absolute carnage, but Snowblood is fixed on her targets all the way through the film, and there are relatively few henchmen for her to cut through on the way. As a somewhat subversive exploitation movie though, it works, and not only for the imagery of Meiko Kaji carving her way through disbelieving men. In the same interview I mentioned earlier, Kaji says that the studio was fine with the film’s radical left-wing, anti-fascist sensibilities since they were drawn from the original manga – but apparently, they’re even more pronounced in the sequel. Roll on Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance.
Lady Snowblood / 修羅雪姫 (Shurayuki-hime)
Director: Toshiya Fujita
Japanese Release Date: 1st December 1973
Version Watched: Arrow Video Blu-Ray Release, 97 min