Quentin Tarantino has never shied away from the debt he owes to foreign cinema when it comes to his own films, and whether they’re called homages or ripoffs the bottom line remains that certain movies from overseas inspired some of his most well known features. Reservoir Dogs is a blatant lift of Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, Inglourious Basterds found inspiration from Enzo Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards and Tarantino’s two-part, female led revenge thriller Kill Bill? You need look no further than Toshiya Fujita‘s 1973 classic, Lady Snowblood.
Japan, 1874, and the cries of a newborn baby can be heard echoing in the cells of a women’s prison. Deemed a “child of the netherworld” upon her birth we next see Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji) twenty years later as an adult walking a secluded and snowy road. A group of men approach carting their gang boss leader in a rickshaw, and when they attempt to forcibly move Kashima she slices and dices her way through them like blood filled bags of butter, painting the snow red as she goes. As the gang leader falls beneath her blade he asks who sent her, and he dies knowing only that it was revenge.
“You were born for vengeance. Poor child…”
The film goes on to follow Kashima on her quest for vengeance against the men (and woman) who killed her father and brother and raped her mother, all before she was even born. She was conceived out of a need for revenge, and it’s blood lust that fuels her days and nights. But her journey grows complicated when she meets a man sympathetic to her cause and a teenage girl whose father is scheduled to die on the tip of her sword.
Fujita’s film is broken into chapters with spectacular names like “Vengeance Binds Love and Hate” and “Crying Bamboo Dolls of the Netherworld” and it also bounces back in forth in time in order to tell Kashima’s story. It’s a revenge tale through and through, but Fujita and screenwriter Norio Osada entwine it with historical context that adds additional weight to the narrative. Government crackdowns and social upheaval are behind the growing criminal class, and Kashima is the tragic result of a broken system.
Visually the film is a mix of effective exterior shots and sound stages where Fujita and cinematographer Masaki Tamura have crafted often stunning scenes of blood-spattered beauty. Spattered isn’t really the best word though as the thick, bright red blood on display here sprays, shoots and spills more than it spatters. It’s far from realistic, but it’s so strong visually as it mists through the air and pools across the snow that credibility issues are easily forgiven.
The acting is solid if unspectacular across the board, but Kaji brings a fierce intensity alongside her beauty. Her fighting is a mix of choreography and editing more than any real skill, but even if she lacks the ability of someone like Jeeja Yanin she sells the character on sheer determination.
Lady Snowblood is a stylish and bloody revenge thriller that holds up well even forty years later. Fujita’s crafted a beautiful exploitation film that isn’t shy about squirting the red stuff alongside historical and social commentary, and it’s easy to see how future filmmakers could be inspired to create and empower their own dark and capable female heroes.
The Upside: Visually appealing cinematography with strong color palettes; bloody action and swordplay; Meiko Kaji is an intense beauty
The Downside: Fight choreography is only serviceable
On the Side: The film’s theme song, “Shura No Hana”, is sung by Meiko Kaji and also featured in Kill Bill.
Arrow Video’s fantastic new UK Blu-ray release includes the feature film as well as its 1974 sequel, Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance. Both films have been given strong HD transfers with sharp images and vibrant colors. The special features are light and consist only of trailers and an eleven minute video interview with Jasper Sharp. (Arrow’s region B/2 Blu-ray/DVD combo is available from AmazonUK.)