Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime) is a classic revenge tale, enlivened by an awesome heroine and a gleeful embrace of blood, gore and groovy music. If, like me, you enjoy South Indian revenge masala films or you liked Kill Bill, this is a perfect fit.
Yuki (Kaji Meiko) is born to avenge her parents and brother. Her mother was jailed when she killed one of the men who raped her. Driven and adamant, Yuki seeks out those who destroyed her family and takes her bloody revenge.
The film is based on a manga and retains the strong visual style and chapter format complete with title cards. Much of the exposition is through narrative voiceover or a character’s inner monologue, again mimicking the graphic novel. The film is set in 1882 but while the costumes and sets are notionally historical in tone, the music and editing is firmly of the 1970s. The excellent soundtrack (by Masaaki Hirao) ranges from lounge to soulful pop with a dash of funk and I felt it worked well in to underscore the action, as well as maybe showing Yuki was out of step with her time. The elements often reflect and amplify the dramatic tone, with crashing waves or howling wind mirroring Yuki’s turmoil and snow is a constant reference. The action is stylised enough that the gory scenes are still exciting but also feel a little at a remove so are less confronting. The fight scenes are heavy on red paint and sound effects that range from the metallic ring of blade through bone to the gluggy suck and slurp of soft tissue torn asunder and the sound of blood escaping from a high pressure hose. Buckets of blood and frenetic fights are contrasted with a lyrical beauty and often meditative pace.
The crime that Yuki is avenging took place before her conception, but she can recall everything from the moment that her eyes first opened. The extent of her mother Sayo’s rage and determination was shown in a darkly humorous montage of her shagging any man with a pulse in any corner of the prison, desperate to conceive the child that would avenge her family. That strong bond with her deceased mother Sayo (Akaza Miyoko) makes this vengeful tale come alive. This isn’t a second hand obsession that Yuki could walk away from. She was raised as a ‘child of the netherworld’ – someone beyond even the compassion of Buddha. Repeatedly told she had no other destiny, she saw no reason to doubt that.
From a distance Yuki is a demure kimono clad figure carrying her trademark parasol, but Kaji Meiko is fierce. Her gaze is direct and challenging as Yuki has no fear or reason to want to outlive her targets, and her voice can be harsh and edgy. Yuki’s emotions are channelled into her mission of revenge and her nihilistic world view doesn’t allow for indulgence or frivolity. But she isn’t immune to softer feelings, and sometimes that doesn’t work out so well. She acts out of some kindness towards the daughter of one of her victims and that comes back with a sting.
The action scenes are reasonably demanding especially, one imagines, in a dress and she does wear some fabulous outfits. I also loved the way her eyes would light up in some fights, whether that was sheer amusement at the paint splattered shenanigans or as a sign of Yuki not being completely frozen.
The writer Ashio Ryurie (Kurosawa Toshio) may have sad puppy eyes and tousled 70s hair, but he is more than just a bit of eyecandy. He sees the enigmatic woman and is instantly intrigued. He romanticises Yuki in some ways, but she forces him to confront the truth. She kills because she wants to, feels she has to, and she is good at it. He draws a manga of the mysterious Lady Snowblood and uses it to try and pressure the remaining two targets into revealing themselves. Even under torture he refuses to betray her. Initially she rejects his interest and affection but she does start to think about life after the mission is complete. They have some chemistry but romance is not a priority when there are so many people that require killing. And what self-respecting revenge drama could pass up the opportunity for a birth secret and a dodgy disguise?
Yuki is a loner, but she doesn’t work alone. She was kept on task by one of her mother’s friends from jail and the enigmatic priest Dokai (Ko Nishimura) who trained her to kill. She also recruited Matsuemon (Hitoshi Takagi), a kind of beggar king who uses his network to investigate the whereabouts of Yuki’s intended victims. The cast is quite small but the world within the film is rich.
See this if you like action films with a kickarse lady protagonist, enjoy the skewed manga sensibility with a strong visual punch or just want to know how much of a debt Quentin Tarantino owes to Shurayukihime. 4 ½ stars!