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Toshiya Fujita's samurai picture is a striking combination of violence, feminism, history lesson and
literary conceit, and one deserving of better attention. The slight but awe-inspiring Meiko Kaji
plays Yuki Kashime, who has vowed to avenge the rape of her mother Saro. Four criminals had attacked
Saro, and her schoolteacher husband, 20 years previously. After his killing, then her three-day rape
and torture ordeal (here shown in a mercifully short, single sequence) and her confinement to prison
for murder, she gave birth to Yuki, pledging her offspring to wreaking her revenge on those four
responsible. Yuri is called Lady Snowblood "because the snow that cleanses the decay of the
netherworld is fiery red, rather than pure white" - presumably reflecting the imbalance her
mother's defilement has caused in this world and others.
Cast in four chapters, and with such evocative titles as 'Umbrella of Blood', 'Heart And Strewn Flowers', 'House of Joy', 'Final Hell', together with some vivid, interposed manga graphic work, Lady Snowblood (aka: Shurayuihime) consciously strives to mimic a literary structure and presentation. (The version reviewed also includes on-screen 'footnotes' translating cultural subtleties for the occidental viewer.) This striving for effect creates an occasional self-consciousness on screen, which can be a distraction. For the first two-thirds of the film, an off-screen narrator (later revealed as the journalist Ashio) puts many of the events we are seeing in a wider historical context, i.e. that of the years immediately after the end of Japanese isolationism. Precise references are made to both the Meiji as well as the more familiar western calendar, presumably to offset the central plot's sensationalism. Placing the contemporary nature of events so precisely also gives the incipient radicalism of the journalist Ashio a point, just as his later working of Yuki's tale into a novel and early narration neatly 'frames' the action.
This was a disruptive time in Japanese history when, for the first time, foreigners were admitted in large numbers. In Lady Snowblood the actual presence of westerners is not in evidence until the final few scenes, although their influence is hinted at by implication throughout. Fujita's final showdown is set amidst the alien, European decadence of a charity masquerade. Such staging provides a suitable climax, right down to the overhead shot of the dispatched villain pulling down American and Japanese flags together, as he drops onto the ballroom floor. Two of the four criminals hunted down by Yuki wield revolvers. The use of modern weaponry is always a point of comment in samurai films (one recalls the pride of place given to a gun by the bully in Yojimbo). Before the arrival of new technology, Japanese firearms were antiquated and undervalued by the warrior classes. In samurai cinema, new-fangled revolvers in the hands of villains like Goshiro are, typically, overwhelmed by swordplay or martial guile, and it is no different here. As in the case of the conscription riots that trigger the original rape and murder, such weaponry inevitably suggests the insidious influence of new cultures on old Japan, even as Goshiro mingles with the new elite of the occupying western nations.
An expressionist film, Lady Snowblood emphasises white in particular (the oriental colour of death). Yuki's outfits are bright white as she wields her sword to such damaging effect; a snowfall punctuates her birth in prison with flakes. Her last scene occurs amidst drifts, and the clean papers upon which Ashio writes the novelisation of her early adventures are crisp and white. There are warm reds aplenty too, as blood erupts from Yuki's cutting and slashing, the frequent geysers from severed arteries coating participants. More explicitly, Fujita's film is one in which human sized dolls are consigned to the sea, or the narrator can comment directly on how the sea, crashing on the shore, reflects the internal state of the enraged heroine. Yuki's aggression and hatred is of course a literal expression of her revenge quest, an overwhelming drive that can continue even after the death of her object (as when she severs the hanging corpse of Okono in two).
Plenty of handheld camera work, as well as the black and white montage sequence of Yuki's journey to Tokyo, give some scenes a mock-documentary feel. This, together with the previously mentioned placing of events within a broader history, help offset the main, purple, melodrama built around Yuki. As a heroine she is consistently strong and purposeful. Whether being rolled down a hill in a barrel as part of her training, practising swordplay with her reverend trainer, gambling with Yakuza, or just facing down men over a sword, she is very much a constant force to be reckoned with. Only when pleading for information from the old gang leader does she show anything like the humility and respect typically expected from Japanese women. Her independence and resolve reflect the way the initial crime has thrown the regular balances out of course; it also makes for an intriguing central figure, a Lady Macbeth with a ken. Like the blade that slides out of her innocuous umbrella, Yuki conceals her real nature under a calm and slight exterior, quick to anger, slow to forgive.
Kaboue, the daughter of Banzo, is another young woman also out for vengeance and, in a film that focuses on the fortitude of wronged women, it is especially apt that she should prove the last encounter that Yuki has. As one character observes dryly, it is not enough that there is one woman out for vengeance. By the end of the film there are two. Lady Snowblood, with its strong female characters, has strong feminist overtones, although the air of exploitation, which attends Yuki's tale, somewhat reduces any sociological impact.
Both director Fujita and actress Kaji are relatively unknown in the west (her career apparently ended in the 1970s). The impact of this striking film suggests that there may be some more interesting discoveries in store from both of them.
DVD extras: background info on the Russo-Japanese war, biographies of star and director, promo artwork, stills gallery, trailers for other titles on this label.