Before the opening credits of Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (1973) roll, a restive camera prowls the corridor of a women’s penitentiary once upon a winter’s night. The slightly unsteady handheld cinematography creates an atmosphere of Grand Guignol fused with documentary rawness: immersive yet detached.
A baby’s first cries break the silence as a series of captions tell us the time (“Meiji 7”—1874, the seventh year of Japan’s turbulent Meiji era) and place (“Tokyo Prison/Hachioji Branch/Kanagawa Prefecture”); a snowstorm rages outside. In a woman’s cell, the baby, attended only by red-robed inmates, is passed along to the sweat-draped new mother’s side. Agonized, breathing heavily, she looks at the infant in horror and mournfully declares, “Yuki [Snow], you will live your life carrying out my vendetta. My poor child . . . you are an asura demon.” Stray snowflakes fall on the baby as the camera pans up to the barred window and the blizzard beyond; the snow turns red as the title Lady Snowblood flashes boldly on-screen.
With three minutes of off-the-cuff cinematic shorthand, a strange, precarious universe is born: a mind-melting witches’ brew of Rosemary’s Baby, Lady Macbeth, and “Snow White.” Immediately, there’s an overhead shot of a woman alone, demurely clothed, twirling a purple umbrella as snow falls on her path. A close-up of her face reveals something chilling about her eyes—bloodshot, calmly feral, unforgiving. Suddenly, a gang leader approaches in his rickshaw, and his thugs demand that she get out of their way. One acrobatic somersault, one quick midair extraction of a sword from the umbrella’s handle, and four slashes/thrusts of her blade later, and the men have been cut down in a blood-spurting floral pattern splayed out like a Payback Bouquet in the snow. “Who the hell are you?” asks the dying crime boss. But we already sense the answer from Meiko Kaji’s commanding presence, a glare that communicates how much evil she has seen and how much more she is willing to do.
Further answering the gang leader’s sputtering question, a gorgeously enraptured theme song—sung by Kaji herself, though in the third person—now plays as we watch her training for battle in picturesque locales:
The morning has died
And the snow falls in mourning
A stray dog howls
And her geta clatter beneath her feet
She bears the weight of karma
As she walks gazing straight ahead
Embracing the darkness with her umbrella-sword
She walks the path dividing life and death.
Is it any wonder that Quentin Tarantino loved the poker-faced delirium of this film so much that he not only lifted swatches of it for Kill Bill: Volume 1 but also used this very song—“Shura no hana” (“The Flower of Carnage”)—as well?
Lady Snowblood and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)—the flamboyant sequel that prematurely wrapped up this saga of retribution as poetry—originated in a popular manga written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Kazuo Kamimura (Koike being known for the celebrated Lone Wolf and Cub series). The films, both directed by Toshiya Fujita, display not only great audacity and panache but also an astonishing elasticity. Lady Snowblood interlaces multiple layers of mythic representation, modulating painterly visualization, heartrending overtones, scornful political commentary, Buddhist fatalism, and pulp absurdism along the crisscross lines of a comic-book Marat/Sade. Love Song of Vengeance is more sprawling, and disorganized, but compensates with unhinged eruptions of ardor that bubble up from under the post-Victorian mise-en-scène, as if Kaji’s weary, roving-assassin heroine had leapt through a two-way mirror (which she literally does at one point) and landed in a curiouser and curiouser fusion of Sergio Leone, Shohei Imamura, and Kinji Fukasaku’s Black Lizard.
Both pictures depict the clash of a violently displacing, Westernizing modernity pitted against the organic, agrarian past. The first is set in the Meiji period, during which Japan transformed itself from an isolated, still halfway-feudal society into an imperialist powerhouse to rival the West. Covering the period from 1873 to 1893, Lady Snowblood is both jolting and graceful in the way it hopscotches across time and divergent illustrative spaces. One second Yuki’s mowing down adversaries, the next we’re back with her mother, Sayo (Miyoko Akaza, Fujita’s wife), on her deathbed. Sayo recounts to her cellmate midwives how she, her husband, and their son were attacked by four criminals—three men and a particularly vicious woman—who claimed that her husband (the district’s new schoolteacher, dressed in immaculate white) was a government spy. He and the little boy are slaughtered; Sayo is raped by the men and then taken away by one of them. After killing that man and escaping, she’s captured and sent to prison, but gets herself impregnated by a guard so she can send Yuki into the world as her instrument. There’s a whole movie in that little sequence, but it’s just a launching pad for the quest that follows.
Lady Snowblood plays with time and narrative in remarkably perceptive ways, introducing flashbacks within flashbacks, incorporating a quicksilver novelization of Yuki’s saga in progress using frames from the original manga, and juggling a host of heterodox visual elements. Besides the panels from the manga, Shurayuki-hime (that being a pun on the Japanese name of “Snow White,” “Shirayuki-hime”), there are faux woodcuts, posters, and Muybridge-like stop-motion photography. Most strikingly, Fujita’s maneuvers don’t feel derivative or imported: they seem to arise naturally out of the needs of the story rather than being imposed on it by directorial fiat. This visual diversity didn’t come out of a cultural vacuum, but an awareness of trailblazers like Jean-Luc Godard, Nagisa Oshima, and, most subtly but perhaps crucially, Alain Resnais is not the same as homage. Fujita doesn’t so much borrow as cannily repurpose avant-gardish techniques and devices to his own more streamlined ends (whereas when Tarantino pays homage to Fujita and other Asian pulp masters, there is a museum-of-annihilation sense of lingering ponderously over each drop-dead flourish). The closest parallel to what Fujita achieves in the first movie is Seijun Suzuki’s Story of a Prostitute, likewise a synthesis of radical content, formal daring, and an ultraexpressive slant on down-and-dirty conduct. Extremity is the norm in Japanese genre films, but try to think of a more beautifully feral and profoundly disturbing image than the one here of the eight-year-old Yuki in training, her robe suddenly cut off by her teacher’s sword, trembling and naked, forlorn but unbroken, licking the wound on her arm.
In Lady Snowblood, leftist peasant sympathies are telegraphed against a backdrop of corruption and capricious, decadent authority figures. So when Yuki becomes involved with the muckraking radical Ryurei Ashio (Toshio Kurosawa), his serialized novel of her exploits is injected into the film not only via the manga graphics but with superimposed images of its readers as well. There is a rapturous feeling of the movie looping like a Möbius comic strip, as these unbalanced, self-conscious elements all come together along a twisting, frozen journey. The violence resolves itself in the dewy beauty of the blood, the reddest, ripest lipstick/oil-paint shade imaginable, squibs squirting gushers and crimson spray like aerosol brushstrokes on a studio-set canvas. Even the fake snow has a gratifyingly expressive, winter-wonderland ambience.
The film builds through multiple climaxes, to a point where Yuki corners the woman who oversaw the death of her family members and, finding that she has hanged herself, severs her at the waist as though slicing into a piñata. That rings down the curtain on what turns out to be only the movie’s second act. A masked ball like something out of Feuillade awaits, a scintillating dance of death that reaches a fever pitch of heartbreak and grandeur, the ancient codes and blood rites played out against a backdrop of waltzing elites mimicking European manners.
The second movie is a major narrative departure, set more than a decade after Lady Snowblood concludes: Yuki, having fulfilled her terrible destiny, is in flight from her past. What the film does retain, and indeed makes more overt, is the leftist critique of Japanese imperialism, now in the wake of Japan’s victory over Russia in the 1904–05 war. Herecorrupt militarists infect an anarchist opponent with the plague, then turn around and use that contagion as a pretext for “cleansing” a slum by burning it to the ground! The social commentary gets a perverse spin from a rogues’ gallery of bad guys whose brutality is equaled only by their outlandishness. Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance conjures a world of louche villainy, with pompous government functionaries in deerstalker caps and houndstooth jackets clomping through decors that look like matings of Edwardian drawing rooms and Italian brothels. (A stuffed tiger counts as understatement.)
Love Song of Vengeance distills Japan’s aggressive modernization into a crisis narrative whose sympathies are again with displaced peasants. It feels more hemmed in—trying to recapitulate the incredible highs of the first film and yet deviate from the template at the same time. It’s the more piecemeal of the two, but nonetheless a captivatingly schizophrenic, startlingly weird movie in its own right. The time is now 1906, and nationalism is in full regal bloom. But from the start, the older, aimless Yuki seems burdened by her past. At her mother’s grave, assassins set upon her, and she fights her way through them—this time, though, with an air of resignation. When she’s surrounded by cops on a beach and surrenders, she tosses her sword in the air, and it lands upright in the surf, an emblem of stoic futility. Shortly after, when Yuki is abducted from custody and taken to the secret-police chief’s castle, it becomes clear that she’s no longer traversing quite the same rigorously defined spaces as before. Spaghetti western visual tones mingle with chanbara gesticulations, while the score enjoyably mashes up Ennio Morricone and Pink Floyd. It almost feels like they rushed the second film out too quickly, without thinking it through, yet were determined to cram everything into it. Like in the first one, but more erratically, there are enough intriguing tangents to carve three or four movies from the outline of this compressed, wayward tragedy.
Fujita, however, isn’t fazed, readily adapting his approach to this tricky act of balancing an overloaded, disjunctive narrative. A study in political resistance, oppression, and civil unrest (where the clash of civilizations has been internalized in the Japanese body politic); a turn-of-the-twentieth-century soap opera (featuring two overlapping quasi-romantic triangles); and a horror film (the introduction of the black death and its representation via crude, pestilential makeup), it eventually reverts to being a revenge flick. One essential difference between the two films: in the first, motivations are eloquently established up front, building from one act of reprisal to the next crescendo, whereas in the second, most of the movie is a slow-burn setup for the big, berserk finale.
Toshiya Fujita’s direction of these two movies is notable for its sui generis freshness and aesthetic composure. And for how anomalous it is in terms of the rest of his career. Can a hired gun also be a visionary—a visionary on demand?! Nothing else on his résumé resembles or even approaches the Lady Snowblood films; he was already past forty when he made them, though he had only begun directing six years earlier. (Before that, he had been a jack-of-all-cinematic-trades: publicist, screenwriter, and assistant director.) He went on to make another twenty or so movies, but none in the same vein. He had worked with Meiko Kaji before, on a couple of the Stray Cat Rock movies—standard teen-delinquent fare. But nothing in his oeuvre—Wet Sand in August (1971), August: Scent of Eros (1972), Virgin Blues (1974), or Female Delinquent: A Docu-Drama (1977)—indicates any affinity for the abundant stylistic and attitudinal flourishes of the two Lady Snowbloods.
Some directors are chameleons, but Fujita really pulled off an extraordinary feat: he rose to the occasion of Norio Osada’s screen adaptation in the first movie and Kaji’s sublime casting in both, acclimating and extending himself to realize artistic ambitions that weren’t necessarily (or at least initially) his own. And the Lady Snowblood duology is a case where some kind of charmed chemistry prevailed throughout: the symbiosis between the rich manga source material and Osada’s inventive telescoping of its convoluted plot in the initial installment, Masaki Tamura’s inventive photography in the first one and Tatsuo Suzuki’s at times even more eye-popping work in number two, and of course Kaji’s gift for channeling the Fates and the Furies as a slender, kimono-draped ball of fire.
Kaji deservedly received her own chapter in Chris D.’s 2005 interview book Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film. Born in 1947, she was one of the most iconic performers in the industry in her twenties, but once she hit thirty she was basically consigned to television by the sexist powers that be. She played controlling molls and teenage gang leaders, nymphomaniacs and stand-by-your-yakuza mates, avengers and deranged convicts; with her long, straight hair, she could seem in some parts like a homicidal—and considerably more talented—Ali MacGraw. (Love Song of Vengeance means never having to say you’re sorry.) Kaji’s performances in the Lady Snowblood films are pervasively, rapturously iconic. As with Brigitte Lin (Peking Opera Blues, Dragon Inn) twenty years later, her eyes were her most unforgettable feature: a penetrating stare that was sharper than a swordsman’s blade or a serpent’s tooth. She made the female gaze deadlier than the male’s.
Her image was well established when the Lady Snowblood films crowned it. The indelible takeaway from her hit Female Convict Scorpion: Beast Stable (1973)was an opening where her escapee character simply amputates the arm of a disbelieving cop who foolishly tries to handcuff himself to her. Then she runs out into the street with the arm dangling from her wrist like a cadaverous purse. In that tradition, Yuki is a black hole of obliteration around which everyone else orbits and into which they’re absorbed. Other actors flash up on-screen and deliver memorable bits (Yoshiko Nakada as Kobue, the blindly devoted daughter of one of Yuki’s targets) or flair (Toshio Kurosawa as the scruffy reporter who recounts Yuki’s story in order to flush out her last prey—his own father), but they all pale beside her steely presence.
It’s hard not to wonder—fantasize—about what other Lady Snowblood films might have been in store if the series had continued through further permutations. It could have made for a great franchise, like a more radical, quasi-feminist answer to the Zatoichi films. Then we might have gotten something like Lady Snowblood Meets the Blind Swordsman. Or Lady Snowblood vs. the Realm of the Senses.
Yet the mystique these two movies bequeathed may be better: the image of a wraith moving silently down a castle hallway or tossing a corpse from a cliff into the sea, a figure to haunt our eternal art-grind-house dreams. The Kaji era’s ripples can be felt in figures and films as different as Brigitte Lin, The Heroic Trio (1993), Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), and, faintly but tantalizingly, Scarlett Johansson. Embracing the darkness, Lady Snowblood’s disciples deserve to rise and take their rightful place over the dead bodies of the pantheon’s gatekeepers. And in the meantime, kid, we’ll always have “The Flower of Carnage.”