Talk about a revenge story! Yuki, a.k.a. Lady Snowblood (Meiko Kaji from the FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION series), has been raised from birth specifically for vengeance. Nothing else. No coloring, no jump rope, just “let’s get you ready to track down some people and chop them the fuck up.” It all started when four scumbags (three men, one woman) attacked a couple, killing the man and raping the woman. When the woman later killed one of the attackers she was put in jail, where she died giving birth to Yuki.
As an adult, Snowblood actually remembers being born in jail. Then a teacher trained her in swordsmanship and fighting and a lady named Auntie taught her to be a pickpocket. She’s like Batman, travelling around to different teachers, mastering different skills, but she will avenge her parents’ death not by fighting crime (DEATH WISH) but by killing the actual perpetrators (DEATH WISH II).
When we first meet her she’s tracked one down, approaches with an umbrella, attacks the guy’s caravan and slices them up. Then she goes to a tribal leader guy who likes her because she once did some killing for them. He agrees to use his people to track all the names on her wish list so she can cross them off.
This is from a comic story by Kazuo Koike (along with Kazuo Kamimura). Koike is the same guy who created LONE WOLF AND CUB and HANZO THE RAZOR, and this is another gloriously extreme character. Like Lone Wolf and Cub she approaches her life as a demon. She’s a more skilled and more fierce killer than her opponents, but we still root for her because she’s so tragic. You hope after she achieves this inherited revenge she’ll be able to find something nice to do. Calligraphy or something. I don’t know.
As she tracks each of the murdering rapists she faces different ethical dilemmas. For example, one of them is old and frail, pathetic. It seems like it was all a million years ago and he’s barely even the same guy. You almost feel sorry for him. Worse, he has this nice daughter who loves him so much she weaves these basket/sleep aid things all morning just so he’ll think she’s selling them at the market. Actually she throws them in the sea and heads to work at the brothel. Snowblood clearly has sympathy for this poor girl and feels pretty shitty about the idea of murdering her dad.
Don’t get me wrong. She’s totally gonna murder her dad anyway. But she feels sorry for the daughter.
Or sometimes she gets there and her target is already dead. Maybe she ought to think “Less work for me,” but this revenge shit being her whole purpose on this earth she doesn’t take it well. Like when she chases down the woman and finds her hanging from a noose, she’s like “Shit” and then chops the body in half at the waist. I mean, what else is she gonna do? Not chop the body in half? Let’s be serious here.
Some of this happens after the writer Ryurei (Toshio Kurosawa, HANZO THE RAZOR: THE SNARE) notices her desecrating a grave, follows her around and becomes obsessed with her story. He starts writing about her, I think just in written form, though they have montages of comic art so maybe he’s supposed to be literally depicting her in comic form, but I don’t think they have printing presses so that wouldn’t make much sense. I don’t know. Regardless, he’s basically her biographer. He does research, gets her backstory from her old sword instructor and of course people are impressed. She becomes famous, which works to lure in some of her prey, and makes the writer/cartoonist a part of the story.
The last guy on her list is worthy of cartoon infamy because he goes the extra mile in trying to escape her wrath. If I may spoil something, he is Ryurei’s estranged father. And you can only imagine the type of shit that kid had to put up with as a son. When they think they’ve killed him but discover he actually got a decoy to wear a fake beard and latex appliances to die in his place, Ryurei says “Damn it, this is so typical of him!”
This is an excellent movie, as badass and colorful as the other Koikes, but blessedly free of the HANZO THE RAZOR rape problem. There is a weird part where the little girl version of Snowblood’s clothes are cut off during sparring and the teacher smiles. Great, Japan. Real cute. But the rapists are the bad guys in this, the victimization of women is not considered acceptable, and no mercy is shown to those responsible.
The filmatism, courtesy of director Toshiya Fujita (STRAY CAT ROCK: WILD JUMBO) and cinematographer Masaki Tamura (TAMPOPO), is very stylish, with techniques like still photo and drawing montages and some effective handheld and POV shots giving it an energetic, modern feel despite the period trappings. And the violence is a good combination of pretty and bloody.
But it’s really the operatic emotional side of it that makes it a classic. It’s such a tragic idea. She has lived her whole life solely for the purpose of avenging the events that led to her own birth. I guess I missed that the father is one of the prison guards – it was even worse the way I misinterpreted it, thinking one of the people she killed could also be her own father. The other innocent girl, who dedicated her life to helping her sick old father, not only loses him but loses her image of him, having to find out that he’s a monster. Her relationship with Snowblood is great because she seems to recognize the need for her vengeance, and also feel the need to avenge it herself. They’re just trapped in this war that started before they were born.
The finale (the clear inspiration for KILL BILL VOLUME 1’s Bride vs. O-Ren Ishii duel, which was even set to this film’s theme song, sung by Kaji herself) has our heroine laying in the snow bleeding, seemingly near death. It’s horribly sad but oddly peaceful. For the first time in her entire life she doesn’t have that to-do list hanging over her head. And she can rest.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.