Watching the first Lady Snowblood, I found it a fun, throwback exploitation movie with a satisfying take on the rampage of revenge trope. It was also my introduction to Meiko Kaji, an ice cold chanbara beauty, categorically not playing a damsel in distress or love interest; in other words, playing a role quite unlike most Japanese women on film. There was something indirectly subversive about a woman slicing through the gang who’d wronged her family, and in Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), I was looking forward to seeing that subversive streak taken a step further.
The sequel kicks off several years after the end of Lady Snowblood, with Kaji’s Yuki Kashima now a fugitive following the bodycount of the previous movie. Given that her revenge was fairly definitive, I was interested in seeing how they would reinvigorate the character for another film. Two of the other series I’ve already covered on Kino 893 show different takes on this same issue: the first few films in the Outlaw VIP series basically throw protagonist Goro into thinly-veiled reimaginings of the same basic story, while Kurosawa’s excellent Yojimbo and Sanjuro take the same lead character and craft completely different narratives around him. Lady Snowblood 2 hews towards the latter option, but sadly, with far less success.
Moving the action ahead sets the film in 1906, against a backdrop of Imperial Japanese militarism and expansionism in China and Russia. Giving up on continuing on as a fugitive, Snowblood finds herself arrested by the Secret Police and given a chance at freedom if she spies on a Marx-reading anarchist ringleader. Already, the anti-governmental overtones of the original manga are coming through in the film, and it’s easy to see why Chris D. asked Kaji if the studio found the film’s topics controversial in his interview with her in Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film. Contextually, the Japanese left had been hit heavily and repeatedly since the Meiji Restoration and into the post-war period during which the Snowblood movies were made, with a right-of-centre government and strong anti-Communist feeling stoked by US allies. The 1960s saw a decade of student protests against the burgeoning US-Japan military alliance that frequently led to violence. That the film places Lady Snowblood up against secretive Imperialist governmental agencies is not a subtle nod to the counterculture of the era.
From this beginning, I expected that either Snowblood would be caught up in the anarchist’s righteous cause, or perhaps in doing so, would learn that the anarchists were equally bloody, corrupt, or otherwise disrespectable, and that any victory on their part would be hollow. Unfortunately, Snowblood herself doesn’t show much agency this time around; after essentially surrendering to the authorities, she has little to say when sent on her mission, infiltrating the anarchist’s household as a maid. There’s no real switch though between her seeming to accept the orders given by the police and deciding to help the anarchists keep secure an explosive letter that could undermine the government. Instead of appearing to support (or even oppose) the anarchist ideology, she seems to get simply carried along for the ride. When things turn sour and the anarchist’s brother, a disgraced doctor, gets involved, it’s like the currents have changed again and she’s swept along in a new direction. It’s extraordinary that despite the title of this instalment, Snowblood seems to have little personal stake in either love or vengeance.
Indeed, the whole movie is full of missed opportunities. The final act that sees Snowblood finally take some action is not especially satisfying, but it could have seen her move from an agent of personal vengeance in the first movie to being a kind of folk hero for an oppressed populace. I think that might be what the film aimed for, but her motivations throughout are so opaque, it’s hard to know if she felt any real connection to those harmed by the government. On a smaller scale, there are individual moments that could have been exploited for greater effect; at one point, she wrests control of a shotgun away from a villain and turns it on him. It’s a great moment and a kind of callback to earlier in the film, when carrying firearms is the only way the police can actually hold their own against her swordplay, as well as a symbol of the encroachment of modernity on Japan at the turn of the 20th century. I was desperately hoping she would take the gun with her into the final battle as the sight of Meiko Kaji in a kimono gunning down a legion of fascistic cops would be too perfect, but instead, it’s abandoned in the next scene.
For all my complaints, it’s worth noting what the film does well, with a higher degree of technical accomplishment than the original Lady Snowblood. There are some decent single-take fights, zoom shots through cracks in the walls of a shack, and excellent transitions between a sketch-like drawing and the slum it depicted. In the first film, those storyboard-like scenes were clearly an inventive attempt to fill in story gaps that were too expensive to film; here, they’re a charming stylistic touch.
Given the relative fame of the character and how clearly influential it was on films like Tarantino’s Kill Bill, I had been fairly surprised there were only two Lady Snowblood movies. Other series around the same time like Outlaw, Battles Without Honour and Humanity, and Kaji’s own Stray Cat Rock and Female Prisoner Scorpion all had several more instalments. Given how enjoyable the first movie was, it’s a real shame the sequel doesn’t live up to either the original or its own potential, and that there was never chance for a third or fourth movie and some course correction. Despite that, I’m intrigued by Meiko Kaji as an actress and I’m looking forward to seeing her in other works. Hopefully, they can be as worthwhile as Lady Snowblood was.
Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance / 修羅雪姫 怨み恋歌
Director: Toshiya Fujita
Japanese Release Date: 15th June 1974
Version Watched: 89 min [Arrow Video Blu-Ray release]