As training montages go, there are few that can equal Lady Snowblood (1973). Yuki, the eight-year-old daughter of a murder convict and an unknown father, is being pummelled into shape by her ruthless sensei. Yuki barely flinches, whether she is being rolled down a slope while inside a barrel or dodging swordplay in the nude. It’s hardly surprising that she blossoms into a 20-year-old woman with the deadliest parasol this side of the Pacific.
Now known the world over as “the movie that majorly influenced Kill Bill”, Toshiya Fujita’s Japanese vendetta drama is a one-of-its-kind sensory experience. The stylised violence, stark colours, unusual camera angles and intense close-ups are proof of the inventiveness that characterised Japanese studio fare in the 1970s. Set during the Meiji era in the late 1800s and based on the manga Shurayuki-hime, Lady Snowblood is relentlessly beautiful and brutal. The vivid opening sequence is bathed in the two dominant colours in cinematographer Masaki Tamura’s palette. The crimson uniform-clad Sayo gives birth to a baby girl in a prison as the snow falls in perfectly symmetrical sheets. Sayo has managed to survive the murder of her husband, gang-rape and incarceration, and she is holding on to her miserable life just long enough to spill out the one-woman killing machine who will eventually avenge her.
Yuki (Meiko Kaji) grows up to be the assassin of her mother’s dreams, coldly and single-mindedly hunting down the killers and showing no mercy even when one of them has been reduced to penurious circumstances. Yuki uses a beggar gang to track down the murderers, and is later aided by a shaggy-haired and unkempt tabloid publisher who cheerfully informs her that he is “a dirty blackmailer”. The stoic and steely Yuki is not impressed by this pathetic attempt at flirtation.
Meiko Kaji had previously appeared in director Fujita’s soft porn and outlaw films. Fujita showcases Kaji’s angular features and almond eyes in loving close-ups, especially in the daringly choreographed action sequences. The hand-held camerawork throws whole frames out of balance, and the effect of watching a manga come to life is complete in the skewed camera angles and the colourful sets and costumes.
American genre specialist and pastiche prince Quentin Tarantino appropriated several moments and sequences from Lady Snowblood for the first part of his vengeance saga Kill Bill (2003). Taken from Lady Snowblood are the character of the lone female outlaw cutting a bloody swathe across the country, the division of the plot into chapters, the fountains of blood that gush from the limbs of victims, and the use of the lovely song “Flower of Carnage” in the climax, which was sung by Kaji and bookends Lady Snowblood.
Some of Tarantino’s borrowings are minute, such as the moment when the killers of Sayo’s husband survey the damage in disdain. The framing is replicated in Kill Bill in the scene in which a heavily wounded Beatrix Kiddo looks up at her would-be assassins. “We have unfinished business” might be one of Kill Bill’s most quoted lines, but it was first uttered by Yuki to her second victim.
Unlike Kill Bill, which exists in the space between Tarantino’s ears, Lady Snowblood is set against a specific backdrop of corruption, poverty and exploitation. Yuki is not merely carrying out her mother’s mission. She is also ridding the population of some of its most venal specimens. Lady Snowblood ends in carnage, with Yuki all but dead on blood-soaked snow, but she is miraculously resurrected in the more explicitly political sequel Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance. Trapped by the police, Yuki is forcibly recruited by the vampiric boss of the secret service who wants her to break into an anarchist’s home and steal evidence that might topple the Meiji regime.
Although Yuki barely reaches for her sword in the sequel, it is no less bloody. This time round, the violence is directed by the government towards its people. The sickening scenes of police torture surpass Yuki’s blood-letting in the first movie. She mostly stands by in horror as the anarchist is first brutalised and then deliberately infected with the plague-causing bacillus virus. Yuki’s hard-bitten visage often softens with pain and empathy. Faced with state-sponsored brutality and bio-terrorism, her warrior stance droops into sorrow. “I have dropped the ‘Blood’ from my name,” she tells the intelligence chief. “Then what’s left,” he sneers. A genre movie about vengeance suddenly becomes a political tract about dissent and political resistance, with the same swift elegance with which Yuki wields her trusty sword.