Sunday, January 26, 2014


Toshiya Fujita's film is obviously a landmark in the mental landscape of Quentin Tarantino. It's not only a gory revenge story, but it also has the quirky chaptering that would become a Tarantino tic. In the context of Japanese cinema and pop culture, it's part of the legacy of Kazuo Koike, the manga writer best known for his Lone Wolf and Cub (aka Shogun Assassin) series. America's nearest counterpart to Koike probably would be Frank Miller, an admirer who contributed covers to the first series of American translations of the Lone Wolf books. Like Miller, Koike brought a new level of "realistic violence and death" (as it used to be described by comic book sellers) to his medium, though Koike did so as a writer only. Ironically, given the new level of gore his stories inspired in movies, Koike's manga were published in black and white. Others factors certainly influenced filmmakers like Fujita, whose unflagging enthusiasm for arterial spray can make Lady Snowblood sometimes look like a Herschel Gordon Lewis samurai film. Fujita didn't invent the effect; Kurosawa had done it (in black and white) in Sanjuro back in 1962. But Fujita's persistent attentiveness to all the ways blood can flow seems exploitative if not pornographic.

Fortunately, there are levels of style and self-awareness that redeem the picture. Koike contributed to the screenplay, and there may be a note of self-congratulation in the sequence when Meiji-era readers rush to buy copies of Lady Snowblood, the muckraking account of the heroine written by the film's Koike surrogate, a Japanese Ned Buntline who turns the protagonist into a folk heroine, as images from the original manga appear on screen. More characteristic of Koike, perhaps, is the doomy tone, the way the heroine is identified as a creature of the "netherworld," accursed from birth with a burden of vengeance. But that portentousness actually fits well with the increasing stylization of the story, the way a curtain comes down to end Chapter Three after the heroine slices a hanged woman in half, or the way Fujita teases the start of Chapter Four by having the author actually drafting the chapter head with ink on paper before something distracts him. Perhaps these are ways of acknowledging the manga-ness of the material, of establishing that the source is at a further remove from reality than the usual sources of samurai movies. The increasing stylization puts the blood in a different light, suggesting that it's more than spectacle for slack-jawed gorehounds. Not that that would compromise the experience for the gorehounds, but Lady Snowblood was and still can be enjoyed on multiple levels depending on the what the viewer is looking for.

The mighty Meiko Kaki plays Yuki, "Lady Snowblood," first scene assassinating a yakuza boss on an appropriately snowy night. An origin story follows establishing her beef with four scumbags -- three men and a woman -- who ran a racket promising exemptions from military service in return for payments with which they absconded. These no-goods pounce on the new schoolteacher who's arrived in town, identifying him as a wicked government "man in white" and murdering him and his son. They rape his wife, who ends up a prostitute in prison desperately trying to get pregnant so a child can avenge her family against the remaining three malefactors after killing one herself. Yuki is her prison-born spawn, born as her mother dies, raised by a soon-released fellow con and trained in combat by a rather mean priest.

Believing one of the three dead at sea, Yuki goes after the survivors, one a broken-down gambler with a devoted daughter, the female fourth in parts unknown under a new identity. Yuki agrees to have her story published with the idea that pubilcity will draw the woman out rather than forcing her deeper into hiding, and that proves a good guess. More surprising is how that woman ends up hanged before Yuki can finish her. Turns out that the one thought lost at sea wasn't lost at all -- and he's the writer's father. You'd think he wouldn't show his hand and risk Yuki's wrath, but common sense would only stop this film in its tracks, and we really wouldn't want that to happen.

I assume that most people wouldn't. To be frank, I still don't care for the increased gore in Seventies swordplay movies; no matter how we might rationalize it as stylization, it still comes across as crass compared to the more elegant violence of the previous generation. Still, style is substance in Lady Snowblood, and Fujita and cinematographer Masaki Tamura bring enough genuine style to the picture to keep it worth looking at -- although Meiko Kaji pretty much does that just by showing up. She's arguably the greatest action actress cinema has yet produced, and that itself is probably a triumph of style over substance. Whether she's a sword-wielding avenger or Female Convict Scorpion in modern dress, Kaji has a presence that dominates the screen -- as well as a lovely singing voice for the theme songs all Japanese actors, apparently, were obliged to perform in this period. However we describe Lady Snowblood generically or stylistically, it's first and foremost a Meiko Kaji movie, and as such is certainly worth seeing. Maybe we should think of all those ejaculations of blood as the homage due to her.

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

Meiko Kaji is certainly one of those performers whose mere presence in a movie makes it worth watching. I have a soft spot for Miki Sugimoto but I'd have to admit that Meiko Kaji was the queen of 70s Japanese exploitation movies.