in Criterion Month

Lady Snowblood (1973)

Perhaps one of the most famous things about Lady Snowblood is that it heavily influence Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, to the point that Tarantino supposedly had his cast and crew watch Lady Snowblood while on the set of his film. Being that Lady Snowblood is also a bloody, stylish, pulpy action movie about revenge, it’s not hard to see the similarities. Unfortunately, I have not seen either Kill Bills since high school, so I can’t really break down the similarities in much detail. Though what I can say is that this later homage clearly was able to carry on the legacy of Lady Snowblood‘s ability to be both visually arresting and extremely entertaining.

The other most notable thing about Lady Snowblood is that it’s based on a manga by Kazuo Koike, who’s probably more known for his influential manga Lone Wolf and Cub (which was also adapted into a film series in the Criterion Collection). Koike got the idea to write the comic after noticing that there had been a lot of Japanese assassin stories written, but none of them were about women. He saw this as an opportunity to create a character that seemed gentle and serene on the outside (much like Snow White, which the character’s name is a play on), but underneath has a demonic fury just waiting to be unleashed.

We’re introduced to the fury of Yuki, aka Snowblood (played by Meiko Kaji), pretty early on as she quickly gets into a tussle with a gang of surly men and proceeds to hack the crap out of them with her sword. We then see in flashback how Yuki came to have this look of silent rage in her eyes, as we’re shown Yuki’s mother Sayo giving birth to her after her father and brother were killed by a gang of swindlers who raped Sayo and left her to die. Yuki’s mother was only able to give birth to her after being imprisoned for killing one of her rapists, and then has sex with enough men who work at the prison that she’s finally able to get pregnant. While giving birth, Sayo dies, but as she’s dying makes the other women delivering the child vow to make sure her child seeks vengeance on the three remaining tormentors that destroyed her family.

This is kind of a convoluted origin for a revenge story, but somehow the film manages to tell it economically enough that you’re able to just go with it. Since it wouldn’t be this kind of movie without a training scene or two, we see that Yuki was trained in the ways of the sword by a priest who molds her into the cold-blooded assassin her mother envisioned. We cut back to where the film began, and see Yuki as she methodically hunts down the other members of the gang that she swore vengeance on. After hunting down and brutally killing two members of the gang, she’s disappointed to find that their leader, Gishirō, died a few years earlier. However, with the help of a local reporter (and part-time fiction writer) Ryu, she finds that Gishirō is still alive and is able to lure him in after Ryu publishes a story about “Lady Snowblood” that gains his attention. This, of course, leads to one final bloody brawl between Yuki and Gishirō.

I’ve kind of alluded to it already, but despite being someone who never gets particularly excited about seeing violence onscreen, I did actually get a bit of a thrill watching the bright red blood (and a few limbs) fly in Lady Snowblood. Maybe this is because it’s so over-stylized here that it’s hard to take any of it seriously — when people get sliced, the blood literal sprays out of their bodies like a fountain. Also, it’s a lot more thrilling to watch a woman kill a bunch mangey dudes, than say, another mangey dude starring in a samurai movie. Also, Meiko Kaji is just incredibly badass in the title role, with an icy stare so intense that you can’t help but think that anyone stupid enough to cross her probably has it coming.

I also think the violence works because it’s presented in a way that has a lot of artistry in it, even if this movie is very well-made pulp at the end of the day. I’m far from an expert on Japanese comics, but I have to imagine that this movie feels so visually striking because it aims to embody the stylized nature of the manga it’s based on. Lady Snowblood seems a bit unique as an adaptation, since as far as I know, the majority of manga comics get adapted into animated films or TV series, since it’s just kind of a no-brainer that you adapt a cartoon into a cartoon. But as American comic movies have proved in the past decade or two, there is an audience for live-action comic adaptations for adults, and there is still a way to make them both faithful and entertaining as hell.