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Silver Screen Streak List #24: 01. Lady Snowblood (1973)

Silver Screen Streak List #24: 01. Lady Snowblood (1973)

Directed by Toshiya Fujita
Written by dorrk
16 December 2023

Since catching some version of the third movie in the Lone Wolf & Cub series — then titled Lightning Swords of Death — on Cinemax in the 1980s, I have had an affinity for 1970s Japanese chanbara swordsploitation, from the grainy film stock and groovy anachronistic scores to the octane-powered arterial spray effects. The more artistically ambitious and accomplished jidaigeki dramas of Kurosawa and Kobayashi may be just as exciting within their different standards, but there's something uniquely rewarding about the visceral, often revenge-fueled, violence and pulp philosophies of these more direct exploitation-style action counterparts. That said, I have barely dipped the tip of my sword in the genre or its wider "Pinky Violence" surroundings. After Lone Wolf & Cub and the long-running blind samurai series Zatoichi — and maybe the more risque Hanzo the Razor franchise — Lady Snowblood is perhaps the most well-known example of this type of movie outside of Japan, surely due both to its lurid, captivating title and its influence on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies. I have seen Lady Snowblood before, over 20 years ago, but only recalled a vague disappointment that warranted a revisit.

Meiko Kaji stars as Yuki, a young woman who was conceived and raised with the singular purpose of avenging her mother, who suffered greatly at the hands of a gang of villains and died shortly after childbirth. Yuki — now grown and using the moniker "Lady Snowblood" — hunts and more or less dispatches her mother's former tormentors. Sometimes her revenge killings are bloody and satisfying, and sometimes they are complicated by new context, but what's a girl to do when this is all she has ever known or wanted?

I started watching Lady Snowblood this time around on an older Bluray with a naturalistic palette and then switched after 20 minutes to the version on the Criterion Channel for better subtitles. The difference in picture quality is stark. Criterion's remaster is not only sharper but it significantly pushes the primary colors — sometimes to the detriment of the overall picture, but the reds and yellows really pop. If you can forgive too much contrast in scenes that don't need it, there's a lot of value in the symbolic clashing color values of snow and blood, which is much more than just a title motif. Yes, it's a cool name for a female assassin, and, yes, there are notable scenes of blood spilled on freshly fallen snow (and on a white bandana and on a white suit and on white kimono), but it's no coincidence that these are the same colors in the Japanese flag (a point made explicit during the film's climax) and that the movie is set in the 1890s when the Meiji Constitution formalized Japan's transition from feudalism to nation state.

Director Toshiya Fujita is clearly up to something ambitious in Lady Snowblood, complementing his thematic interests with expressionistic mixed media, including illustration and evocative superimposition. This is pulp, but it's highly accomplished and adventurous pulp with a strongly contemplative vibe at its heart. In one key flashback, recreating a scene shown earlier but filtered through Yuki's (unlikely) memory, the falling snow outside has changed from white to red. It's one of the most subtle and powerful expressions of the movie's color theme, and indicative of the interiority of Fujita's vision.

Adapted from a manga by Lone Wolf & Cub writer Kazuo Koike, Lady Snowblood shares that story's self-awareness of its own mythological weight, with the characters referring to themselves and their predicaments in gloomy otherworldly terms, as demons caught between the worlds of the living and the dead. Fujita splits Lady Snowblood into vividly titled chapters such as "Bamboo Wives and Tears of Wrath" and "Blood-soaked Umbrella Grief Scattered like Flowers" (these will vary by translation), and the stark dramatic dialog like "You were born for vengeance, poor child," feeds into an effective, grandiose sense of melancholy and doom. It's partially because of this rich sense of melodrama that Kaji is, at least at first, difficult to warm to in the title role. She is so blank and passive that, for the first half of Lady Snowblood, she feels like a void at the center of what is an otherwise operatic effort. In early action scenes, she is alarmingly unconvincing as a fabled assassin and is even outperformed by the child actress who plays her younger self in flashback scenes. But, I'm assuming purposefully, she grows into role, and by the time the epic climax comes around, I was invested in Kaji's Yuki and the film's emotional arc.

Silver Screen Streak List #24: 01. Lady Snowblood (1973)

SILVER SCREEN STREAK: CRIME THRILLERS

Lady Snowblood (1973), Ranked

The first entry in Nigel Druitt's list, The Best Crime Thrillers according to FlickchartLady Snowblood (1973) ranks at a healthy #1108 (81.76%) on my Flickchart. This earns him TWO FREE PASSES for the Second Round.

Up next: DOULOS: THE FINGER MAN (1962) from French New Wave director Jean-Pierre Melville.