Toshiya Fujita's superb 1973 exploitation film is the original rip-roaring rampage of revenge.
In 1873, just outside Koichi village, a young teacher and his son are brutally slain by a gang of four scam artists plotting to exploit for profit the locals' fear of a newly imposed national military draft. Gang-raped over several days, the teacher's wife Sayo (Akaza Miyako) swears vengeance, but after murdering one of the four in his bed, she is sent to a prison in Tokyo. Still hell-bent upon revenge against the remaining three, Sayo deliberately allows herself to get pregnant, hoping that a new son can become the vehicle of her vendetta. Instead, however, she gives birth one snowy night to a daughter, and dies shortly afterwards, cursing her surviving assailants with her dying breath.
So it was that Yuki was literally "born for vengeance", inheriting her mother's implacable mission of murder against two men and a woman who she has never herself even met. Raised by her midwife Otora (Kusuda Kaoru) and cruelly trained from an early age by the priest Dokai (Nishimura Ko) in the art of killing, Yuki has never known anything else beyond her lethal legacy, and so, in her twentieth year, carries out a political assassination to gain favour with Lord Matsuemon (Takagi Hitoshi), Leader of the Beggar Clan, in the hope that he will use his extensive network of contacts to help her track down her three targets, and fulfil her destiny.
This backstory, comprising the first of four headed chapters in Fujita Toshiya's Lady Snowblood, is told in a series of interweaving flashbacks, some accompanied by handdrawn pictures or monochrome photomontages that mimic the forms of a comic book. Later Yuki, now also known as Shurayuki-hime or Lady Snowblood, will meet the journalist-cum-novelist Ryurei Ashio (Kurosawa Toshio) – also the film's principal narrator – who is chronicling her adventures in a popular illustrated pamphlet that forms a sort of manga avant la lettre (and whose very publication is designed to lure Yuki's enemies out of hiding).
All this is an acknowledgement of the film's origins in a manga written by Koike Kazuo, whose Lone Wolf and Cub mangas had also inspired another popular film series (best known to Western audiences through Robert Houston's compendium Shogun Assassin). Yet by presenting versions of Yuki's story in a multiplicity of media, the film also hints at the elusive nature of her character, caught between reality and legend.
Yuki's whole story is a revenge myth, and yet here, far from being sexed up or glorified, revenge is revealed to be a shabby, anti-climactic business. After the film's lengthy introductory section and 'origin story', its subsequent three chapters are each devoted to her three vindictive kills: the first involves her pathetically cutting down an impoverished, alcoholic and utterly unarmed single father (Nayaka Noboru) as he begs her for mercy; the second sees her finding her target (Nakahara Sanae) already dead and so in her fury having to satisfy herself with merely splitting the corpse in two; and upon discovering the grave of her third enemy (Okada Eiji), she is reduced to venting her anger upon the offerings of flowers left there, even if eventually she will find a greater, albeit bittersweet, resolution to her bequeathed bloodlust.
Yuki's path of vengeance, for all its righteousness, inevitably leaves other innocent parties in its trail, determined – just as righteously – to bring vengeance against her. It is as though Lady Snowblood can only half-heartedly revel in its heroine's bloody revenge, while focusing just as much on the tragedy of her circumstances and the absurdity of her vengeful fate. It is only in the film's very final, sequel-courting image, that Yuki finally seems free, at last unencumbered by a past that she never in fact chose for herself.
In commending Ryurei to Yuki as her chronicler, Gokai says: "He's using his talents as a writer to express his hostility and malice towards the political system." Likewise //Lady Snowblood// comes with its own political critique. Its early Meiji-era setting matches the Sixties and Seventies as a time when Japan was opening itself up again to Western ideas and modernisation, yet still having to contend with the scars of recent history. Yuki's destiny, and the trajectory of her whole life, are bound up in events that preceded her birth, and she will only be able to move on after a messy reckoning of past wrongs.
The gang that she pursues had perpetrated crimes not just against her family, but against society (represented by the farming community of Koichi) at a time of great instability and change, making her vendetta not just personal but also political – while, significantly, her final target will bleed his last while wrapped in a Japanese flag, bringing an overtly allegorical edge to all that has preceded. For Yuki, "child of the netherworld", is also a figure for the generation born in post-war Japan, still haunted by the sins of their fathers - and her underground film, like Ryurei's publications, offers more than mere jidaigeki swordplay.
By the time Lady Snowblood was made, its star Kaji Meiko had already established herself both as a gloweringly iconic heroine of the big screen and as a pop singer whose odes to feminine grievance and vengeance often featured in her films. This may have been her first period film, but it nonetheless offers marked associative continuities with her previous, more contemporary works: for Fujita had already directed a couple of the Stray Cat Rock girl gang series in which Kaji first rose to prominence as a leading lady, while the location of Lady Snowblood's opening scene in an all-female penitentiary, along with its central revenge motif, directly evokes the peerless Female Convict Scorpion women-in-prison franchise in which Kaji had taken, and entirely owned, the titular rôle.
Meanwhile, pointed references to the fact that the adult Yuki is both an accomplished gambler and pickpocket draw her into line with – and make her a direct rival of – that other on-screen Meiji-era female avenger of 1970s cinema, Inoshika Ocho (memorably played by Ike Reiko in Sex and Fury and Female Yakuza Tale).
Yet if Lady Snowblood was certainly drawing on many films of its own time, it would also go on to be a key influence on the Kill Bill films, with its overall plot, its soundtrack, several specific images and its complex, ambivalent take on revenge all finding their way into the texture of Tarantino's diptych. Now released by Arrow Films for the first time on Blu-ray, in a double feature with its inferior (but still interesting) sequel Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance, this is a classic from a period when Japanese cinema was making highly inventive and individualistic forays into exploitation genres – and its contrasting colours and carefully composed cinematography are allowed to pop out of the screen once more in 1080p High Definition. So if you want a good-looking revenger that delivers a far more complicated and nuanced storyline than the average genre flick, then Lady Snowblood comes highly recommended.