Criterion Project #4: LADY SNOWBLOOD (1973)

Even before we enter this world we are marked by karma

Lady Snowblood

Lady Snowblood

Year: 1973

Director: Toshia Fujita

Bloody, violent, and beautiful. These terms can be interchangeably applied to both the film and the title character of Toshia Fujita’s classic, Lady Snowblood. My first “first watch” of the project and not your typical Criterion Collection fare. I bought this one (which includes the sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance) without much prior knowledge of the films and zero awareness of the manga it’s based on.

The film tells the story of an asura, or “one who gives their life to avenge another”. Yuki, aka Lady Snowblood (Meiko Kaji), is born into the worst of conditions: she is reared in prison and cursed to be a demon of vengeance. She is the product of a rape pregnancy and her mother dies from childbirth, but not before she passes onto her newborn her fiery hatred for the cadre of swindlers that brutally murdered Yuki’s father and brother.

She eventually comes under the care of priest and disciplinarian who fiercely trains Yuki as an asura, hellbent on avenging the wrongs done to her family. The film often strays from a linear structure to convey much of the backstory as we follow Yuki on her quest to hunt down the remaining criminals and make them pay for their sins.

It’s important to note that the film falls under two specific categories of Japanese storytelling: Jidaigeki, or “period drama”, and Chanbara, or “sword-fighting movies”. The story is set during a time of upheaval in Japan’s history. The country had made the decision to eschew long-standing customs and modernize to keep pace with the rest of the world, including expanding its military force. This shift in governance forces the establishment of an involuntary draft system, causing protests amongst the peasants and dividing the social classes even further.

This is the framework our story takes place within, with Yuki acting as an empowered instrument of the lower class. The quartet of swindlers make off with a pile of scam money from peasants hoping to buy off their child’s military service requirements. Unfortunately for the peasants, no such program exists.

The Doomed Quartet

One day Yuki’s parents come across the scammers and are mistaken for government officials, thus they savagely murder Yuki’s father and even Yuki’s older brother. We see a shocking glimpse of the boy’s blood draining from his lifeless corpse, staining the stream beneath him red. Yuki’s mother, Sayo, is raped repeatedly and ends up pregnant with Yuki as a result. The deadly demigod bore under these conditions is no less than the criminals’ own creation.

From that jumping off point, we follow Yuki as she attempts to track down the scumbags that destroyed her family and bestowed upon her this eternal quest for vengeance.

I love a good revenge story, and this is a pretty stellar example of one. The story isn’t a new invention, but the stylistic choices are certainly interesting. To start, the blood sprays from every gaping wound is – *chef’s kiss* – magnificent. A single slice of her blade and geysers of blood spill out, and to make it better every set is dressed with a multitude of fabrics and surfaces for the blood to stain. Which looks incredible on a 4K tv.

The other stylistic choice I admired was the use of hand-held cameras in many of the action scenes. Several of the fights feature a multitude of POV shots instead of training the camera on Yuki and watching each enemy approach her one-by-one. We actually see from the enemy perspective what it would look like to stare down the asura in the field of battle. It feels unique and shines the brightest of spotlights on one of Japan’s most illustrious exploitation actors, Meiko Kaji.

I had a feeling when I bought this one I would love it, and it absolutely delivered. Style to spare, old fashioned revenge, buckets of blood, and a ruthless assassin with an umbrella sword.

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