Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)
Japanese Title: Shurayukihime
To claim that Toshiya Fujita's Lady Snowblood is artful cinema, while not totally impossible, is verging on the absurd. The film cannot hide its true ambitions with Fujita's over-the-top visuals and methods. Exploitative as it may seem with its plentiful geysers of blood, Lady Snowblood provides a deep and understanding portrait of a woman whose existence on Earth has been predestined by oppression and violence. Forgo of the usual trappings of samurai cinema of its usually disrespected sort, and you'll discover that the film is quite good --- and deserves better attention than just a mere footnote in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films (2003-2004).
Adapted from manga books written by Kazuo Koike (of Lone Wolf and Cub fame), the film starts off with a scene inside a women's prison. A prisoner is suffering through a difficult labor; the irony of the scene is that when the baby is finally released to the world, there is not a notion of happiness or festivity in the air (for sure, even in a women's prison, the miracle of childbirth will cause a stir in the melancholy of the setting and situation). We later learn why the childbirth is no cause for celebration: the baby, named Yuki, has been tasked to continue her mother's mission of vengeance against those who have oppressed her. She was designed, planned, and created for that singular mission, hence, her being called a child of the netherworlds.
Fujita cuts to Yuki, now grown up to be a fine-looking lady (played by Meiko Kaji), donning an immaculate white kimono and holding a purple parasol while walking in an alley. A carriage carrying an important-looking fellow, and guarded by several men, try to get past her. Yuki reveals a samurai blade from her parasol and cuts her way through the bodyguards, then finally, assassinating the boss with a blood-bursting and far-too-easy thrust of her sword. The action is quick (perhaps too quick to be deliciously enjoyed), but very graphic. Fountains of blood spring every time a limb is severed or a body part is punctured. Yuki remains silent and stern; her blade does her talking.
Divided into chapters, with occasional narration by an off-screen presence (who turns out to be a journalist; who somewhat becomes a love interest for the vengeful lady), Lady Snowblood has a literary feel that provides a level of predictability to the exercise: each chapter concerns an inevitable victim of Yuki's vengeance; all culminating in eye-popping bloodbath. Each chapter however contributes an internal strife, an emotional weight to Yuki's inherent burden.
Time has changed her mother's oppressors --- her first victim is now a mere petty gambler; harmless, pitiful, and with a kindly suffering daughter; her final victim is an integral part of her journalist-friend's life. Each vengeful act, each final killing separates her more from humanity --- yet, it is through those dastardly acts that she may achieve atonement and redemption. Yuki's complicated existence on earth, and her predestination as her mother's continued existence for vengeance can only be removed by completing that task, no matter what the consequences may be. Her suffering is quite great, I think --- she has been hypnotized and educated into believing that she belongs to the netherworlds yet in each step through her mission, she realizes her humanity; which makes that final showdown a difficult mental struggle (witness Yuki's unusual lack of lightning fast killing skills in the scene above the party --- there's that moment of remorse, of the possibility of choosing to not go through her task).
The film's end sequence is a telling and very potent scene of cinematic redemption: wounded Yuki (after being stabbed helplessly by the daughter of her first victim) falls into the snowy ground. She cups a handful of snow and puts it in her face which causes her to weep; the sun rises in the background. She finally can feel; she feels that snow (that same snow that was falling when she was born into a life for vengeance) is actually cold, and harsh. Vengeance too, has left her cold, alone, and dying.
This post is my contribution to The Bleeding Tree: The Trashy Movie Celebration Blog-A-Thon.