These two wonderful 1970s cult films, for which director and former screenwriter and cinematographer Toshiya Fujita is certainly best known outside of Japan, are also quite atypical of the work that first made his name in his homeland during the late-sixties, when Fujita started working as a director for the Nikkatsu studio on a number of popular youth movies, later helming several of the more mainstream examples of its ‘Roman porno’ line of flicks -- the big budget soft-core movies that very soon came to constitute the entirety of the studio’s output. Produced back-to-back for an independent subsidiary of the Toho company -- Tokyo Films -- while Fujita was taking a hiatus from his pink film work for Nikkatsu, “Lady Snowblood” and its immediate sequel, “Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance” are extravagant, operatically violent and cinematically inventive samurai sword movies, which approach their no-holds-barred exploitation subject matter with an unusual amount of showy poetic flair and a virtuoso pop art playfulness. The films came to mainstream notice soon after Quentin Tarantino cited them as the partial inspiration for his “Kill Bill” parts 1 &2; and now, with their release in the UK on HD, both films featured on a single Blu-ray disc (and two DVDs, included with the package in a dual-disc release) courtesy of Arrow Video, viewers will get the opportunity to see just how much of their quirky stylisation, baroque splendour, emotional pathos and sheer comic book exuberance he actually borrowed.
Based on a popular manga, “Shurayuki-hime” by Kazuo Koike and artist Kzuo Kamimura, the 1973 live action film version saw Toshiya Fujita reunited with actress and singer Meiko Kaji, who had previously appeared in the two films he made for the Alleycat Rock series, a popular series of youth movies shot for Nikkatsu in the ‘60s. Kaji, a delicate featured, swanlike beauty, plays Yuki Kashima – aka, the murderous but eternally graceful female assassin of the film’s title (earning her nickname by virtue of being born during a heavy snow storm), whose sole aim in life is to avenge the murder of her father and the rape of her mother after the latter later died in prison while giving birth determined that her offspring should be raised to avenge the wrong perpetrated upon her family.
It soon becomes apparent to the viewer that “Kill Bill” picks up influences that extend far beyond the modelling of the Lucy Liu character O-Ren Ishii on Yuki or Tarantino appropriating one of the film’s main theme songs, lounge ballad Shura No Hana (sung by Meiko Kaji herself), and recreating specific shots and scenic settings from both the Lady Snowblood films: Fujita’s whole approach in fact feels astonishingly modern to those of us who grew up with “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction-style” non-linear storytelling, which, given Tarantino’s own influence on the language of modern cinema, suggests these two films have indirectly had a much more profound impact than many of today’s cinemagoers will ever realise.
The narrative of the first of them unfolds as a series of discrete chapters which make use of an eclectic melange of visual aids, incorporating manuscript scroll drawings; photo-montage techniques; and images from comic book panels (taken from the original Lady Snowblood manga), in order to introduce characters and relate different aspects of the tale in a distinctive manner. Like many of Tarantino’s movies including “Kill Bill”, these episodes take place out of narrative sequence; and in telling the story, Fujita draws on various events from nineteenth century Japanese history in order to provide a compelling social background for Yuki’s journey into the netherworld, much of which would clearly have had resonance for a post-Vietnam 1970s audience, with its backdrop depciting western industry’s incursion into the running of Japanese society along modern capitalist lines in the 1870s during the Meiji Restoration, and a jingoistic Japanese government that’s conscripting its most impoverished villagers into the military. Various events in Yuki’s story, from her birth to her training and to her sworn mission to avenge her parents, are related out of order and told by different narrators; the flashback to Yuki’s mother Sayo (Miyoko Akaza) held in prison as her daughter is being born, also features another flashback housed within it in which Sayo relates her own story; and later episodes in the grown-up Yuki’s quest for vengeance are narrated by a journalist whose very telling of the drama is really a lure, designed to flush her remaining enemies out into the open.
Sayo tells her prison-mates how she was forced into slavery by a gang of opportunistic criminals exploiting anti-western superstitions in the rural regions. Tales of outsiders who wear white apparently all being western-backed blood harvesters, and about war conscripts being murdered after being drained of their blood so it could be sold abroad are used as a cover story in order to excuse the gang’s murder of Sayo’s school teacher husband soon after the couple arrived in the remote rural village the gang were then running. Sayo is repeatedly raped by her captors. She tells how she bided her time, becoming gang leader Shokei Tokuichi’s (Takeo Chii) concubine in order to gain an opportunity to exact her revenge upon him, but how she was captured and imprisoned in Tokyo Women’s Prison before she could hunt down and destroy his three accomplices. In jail, Sayo set about sleeping with every guard she could in order to make sure she became pregnant, hoping for a son who will then be raised with one objective in mind: that he should be indoctrinated into fulfilling her desire for vengeance upon the three killers still at large. Of course, a baby girl is the result of Sayo’s calculated promiscuity and little Yuki must then endure a harsh upbringing at the hands of a priest, charged with raising her from infancy to kill in order to bring about her mother’s dying wish. Most of her childhood is spent being tossed down a steep rocky slope in a barrel or being trained to fight using bamboo rods. Yuki emerges into early adulthood as a dainty, parasol-twirling beauty; but her graceful pulchritude conceals a steely one-track mind that’s been programmed from birth for one thing: killing those whose former actions deserve her mother’s eternal lust for vengeance. The subsequent stylised set-pieces play out amid exactly the riot of swishing sword-play antics, chopped limbs and arterial fountain sprays one would expect to find in such material, as the deadly female assassin draws on the help of an assembly of sympathetic dispossessed including a clan of rural beggars who provide information to help her track down the three remaining gang members. She’s also helped in her quest by a handsome journalist and manga artist, Ryūrei Ashio (Toshio Kurasawa), who sets about publicising her mission and creating her ‘Lady Snowblood’ legend.
What makes the film so surprising and so endlessly re-watchable is Toshiya Fujita’s ability to fuse so many disparate elements together in the telling of what appears to be this quite simple and straightforward revenge tale. There’s a playful, self-reflexive originality to the range of cinematic techniques and devices the director employs throughout in order to emphasise various facets of the perverse emotional dichotomy inherent to Yuki’s story: she is, in a way, a tragic character: denied her own independence of mind from birth and raised with one sole objective which must be achieved in order to provide her life with any ultimate meaning. On the other hand she’s an inspirational figure -- combining beauty, grace and resilience with steadfast determination and loyalty. The effects of the beautifully designed sets and costumes which add so much of the sumptuous colour to this violent tragedy are heightened by a fantastic score by Masaaki Hirao, which mostly ignores the fantasy version of the nineteenth and early-twentieth century historical periods in which the film’s events are apparently taking place to deliver a set of cues which happily tread sure-footedly between hip late-sixties lounge balladry and strident fuzz-tone guitar-driven pseudo-western themes – all of which should feel out of place, but which in fact fit right in with the self-aware, stylised ‘pop art’ aesthetic of a movie that’s filled to the brim with dazzling imagery and aesthetically charged choreography. Hirao even manages to get in a few synth-based cues onto the diverse soundtrack and the score often feels like it could have come from one of the racier Italian gialli of the era.
Yuki’s enemies turn out to be much tougher to confront and kill than she anticipated simply because times have changed a great deal since her mother’s death: the fates of the three people she’s been trained to exact revenge upon have differed wildly in the intervening years and the story is consequently forced down some unexpected avenues which deliver ironies and twists aplenty as Yuki gradually discovers vengeance is a more complicated and painful thing to extract than her training had prepared her to acknowledge: one of her prospective victims is now merely a pathetic unemployed drunk (Noboru Nakaya) whose daughter secretly sells her body in order to keep their meagre household together; another is a ruthless female psychopath (Sanae Nakahara) who no longer cleaves to samurai methods and simply uses a revolver to dispose of her foes; and the last is now an opium smuggler who’s association with western politics has gained him some degree of respect and influence at home. The climax comes at a masque ball in a western-style banqueting hall, and delivers both pathos and heightened cartoonish gore when the extra-bright crimson blood flows thick and fast.
In the second film, “Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance” the tone becomes considerably more muted and the storytelling more sedate than was apparent from the explosion of invention which characterised the original from beginning to end. Fujita opts for a more settled, linear storytelling style to highlight the change in Yuki’s sensibility which has occurred since the events of the previous film. There’s a more wistful, almost elegiac tone to proceedings at first, highlighted in Kenjirō Hirose’s initially romantic, lilting and reflective music score. This is a story about someone who now no longer has a role in life and is desperately searching for one; consequently, Yuki here seems rather more passive and acted upon at the start of the film (and for most of its running time) than she did when she had a defined purpose and a clear set of objectives to guide her actions. Set in 1905, Japan’s social and political backdrop is again a vital factor in the nature of the story which subsequently unfolds, and which this time takes centre stage in Yuki’s continuing narrative: the Russo-Japanese war is in progress and a wave of jingoism is sweeping the land. But set against this, economic conditions for the poor in the slums are as harsh as ever, and anarchists inspired by socialist ideas are springing up and agitating through pamphlets in poorer regions of the country. Meanwhile, the police are still hunting Yuki for her merciless crimes and, having now achieved her original aims, ‘Lady Snowblood’ no longer has the requisite fighting spirit needed to defend her-self from the relentlessly pursuing authorities. On a windy beach, surrounded by sword-wielding officers led by the excitable, tweed-clad Inspector Maruyama (Rin'ichi Yamamoto), Yuki surrenders and resigns herself to imminent execution after being confined during her trail to the very prison in which she was born.
On her way through lush countryside to be hanged for the murder of thirty-three people, Yuki’s coach is theatrically high-jacked by mask-wearing, cape-twirling secret policemen, who whisk her off to a meeting in the ornately furnished, dark-panelled offices of the sinister head of the Government’s shadowy secret network of spies – a man called Kikui Seishiro (Shin Kishida). It transpires that the Japanese Government is willing to offer Yuki a reprieve if she will work for Kikui as one of his spies in the home of socialist trouble-maker Ransui Tokunaga (Jûzô Itami). Thus we have the rather unlikely scenario of Lady Snowblood being sent to work as a maid in Ransui’s house, while trying to find a document that’s supposed to be hidden there and the recovery of which the secret police authorities claim to be vital for maintaining political stability. There follows a long section in which, Yuki -- previously a controlled and icy character with little in the way of emotional investment in the affairs of others -- seems out of sorts as she witnesses first-hand for the first time how normal couples live, hearing Tokunaga making love to his wife and getting to know her employer as a multi-faceted person rather than the political troublemaker the Government would paint him as. After learning more about the Government’s crimes against the people and how the document Ransui has obtained exposes Kikui and the state Governor’s corruption, Yuki switches sides, prompting the most extreme reprisals imaginable from her former employers …
This sequel takes its time in re-establishing Yuki as an agent of vengeance and perhaps is not as immediately likable as its processor was because of the grittier, more meditative style this change in emphasis requires, although it ultimately complements the first film perfectly, highlighting the struggle between Yuki’s training as a ruthless unfeeling assassin and the beginnings of a social conscience which extends her gaze beyond just the concerns of her own person. In this context, Yuki is given a range of new state-approved but equally cold-hearted opponents: they include the comical (the deer-stalker wearing Inspector Maruyama) and the devilish -- the latter quality perfectly embodied in Shin Kishida’s portrayal of Kikui Seishiro, who comes across almost as a malevolent vampiric figure who could have been modelled on Christopher Lee’s rendering of Count Dracula. Although the comic-book element of violence still makes its appearance (a one-armed swordsman getting his other appendage unceremoniously lopped off as well is a highlight), some of it takes on a pretty nasty flavour, with the authorities demonstrating their perfidy by presiding over some brutal on-screen torture after Kikui has Tokunaga arrested on the pretext of harbouring ‘an escaped criminal’ when Lady Snowblood switches sides on them. Mutilation in the form eye-gouging, axe attacks, face slitting with a knife and relentless beatings, are all dwelt on lingeringly, with Fujita’s removal of the sound from some of the police torture only more effectively focusing attention on such spectacles of horror as they play out in absolute silence.
When these evil methods don’t work for the state authorities, Kikui engineers the release of bubonic plague inside the slums in which Yuki has been hiding alongside Ransui’s estranged physician brother Shusuke (Yoshio Harada), while she recovers from a gunshot wound sustained earlier during an ambush on both of them. This brutality serves a special purpose in re-fuelling Yuki with the reserves of desire for vengeance that will be necessary when sending her off on the journey that leads to the film’s big face-off, after Kikui tops his previous displays of ruthlessness by burning down the entire slum with Shusuke and everyone else still inside it -- in order to make sure the incriminating document gets destroyed. By this point, Hirose’s score has obtained something of the swagger of Masaaki Hirao’s original, with the final fight scenes considerably enlivened by some almost funky sounding cues, showcasing stridently catchy brass accompaniment. Meiko Kaji remains a compelling presence in both pictures as the deceptively delicate and gentle-looking heroine, and although the sequel can’t reproduce quite the same affecting alchemical mixture of artistic elements as the first movie, the emotional embroidery attached to the Yuki character in this follow-up brings more depth to Kaji’s depiction of one of the classic cult characters of Japanese fiction.
Arrow Video present both of these much loved films on one Blu-ray disc in a dual-disc edition which also features the films spread across two DVD discs. There’s also a Blu-ray only Limited Edition Collector’s Steelbook Edition available. The transfers are generally good, although the HD quality may not be as pin sharp as one might have wished for; both films retain a film-like texture though, with the second coming off as the slightly better of the two. A standard Japanese LPCM 2.0 mono track accompanies both films with removable English language subtitles. Trailers for both pictures are included, along with an eleven minute talk by Jasper Sharp, who fills in all the necessary studio detail on the background to the making of these films. A booklet, “The Crimson Kimono” by critic Tom Mes, will also be included with the release, but was unavailable to review.
The Lady Snowblood films are a visually rich, entertaining exploitation concoction with more intelligence and emotional depth concealed behind their cartoon facades than there at first appears to be. With an iconic performance from the brilliant Meiko Kaji at its heart, this release is a must for anyone who appreciates the weirder, more exotic side of 1970s exploitation cinema.