Lady Snowblood

1973, Movie, 97 mins

Review

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Blood sprays, limbs fall, bodies are chopped in half--business as usual in this moderately diverting feudal Japanese revenge story, enlivened by peculiar plot twists and offbeat cinematic flourishes that greatly influenced Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL VOL.1 and VOL.2.

In 1873, brigands kill a man and rape his wife. Later the wife kills one of the assailants and winds up in jail, where she dies giving birth to a child. Twenty years or so later, Kashima Yuki (Meiko Kaji), trained as an assassin by a sadistic priest, carries a sword concealed in her umbrella. She discovers Banzo, one of her mother's three surviving assailants, still living a licentious life while his daughter supports him through prostitution. When Banzo is caught cheating by other gamblers, Yuki saves him from torture in order to kill him herself. A writer, Ashio, then publishes her life story as related to him by the priest. It turns out to be a lure to bring out the hidden assailants. Ashio is promptly captured and tortured by the minions of Kitahama Okono, the sole female member of the brigands. Yuki saves Ashio, slaughtering numerous evildoers, but Kitahama is already dead. Ashio later reveals that the last brigand, Tsukamoto Gishiro, long thought dead, is actually alive and responsible for Kitahama's death. Not only that — he's Ashio's father. Yuki corners and slays Tsukamoto at a Western-style charity masquerade, only to discover that the man she killed was an an imposter. The real Tsukamoto wounds both Yuki and Ashio. Ashio then grabs Tsukamoto and Yuki runs a sword through the son to kill the father. Stumbling away, she is stabbed by Banzo's daughter, but survives.

Based on a manga co-written by Kazuo Koike (prolific author of GOLGO 13, CRYING FREEMAN, and the LONE WOLF AND CUB manga and film series), LADY SNOWBLOOD takes narrative idiosyncrasy to a new level. Divided into four distinct chapters ("Crying Bamboo Dolls of the Netherworlds," "Umbrella of Blood, Heart of Strewn Flowers"), it begins slowly in a decidedly nonlinear (and rather uninvolving) manner, jumping back and forth in time between an angry mom giving birth and her brooding daughter years later. Yuki, now known as Shurayuki ("Shura" meaning Hell), is described as a "Child of the Netherworld" in ceaseless repetition. Eventually her origins are given in a flashback that dissolves to an omniscient voiceover with still photos used as illustration. Stage conventions are utilized (a curtain drops to end one scene), manga panels depict offscreen occurrences, and sound and silence are manipulated in surreal ways. Later the narrative folds in on itself and becomes even more bizarrely self-reflexive with Ashio writing the fourth chapter heading for Yuki's story even as it unfolds onscreen with him as participant. All this cinematic brouhaha is certainly entertaining, but unnecessarily distancing, with the result that we never quite sympathize with any of the characters.

With her frail frame and white, nearly impassive face, Meiko Kaji is convincing as a tormented soul, but less so as a trained killer capable of cutting down a dozen assailants. Formerly the star of several hit action series from the Toho and Toei studios and THE TATTOOED SWORDSWOMAN (1970) from Nikkatsu, Kaji sings the lovely theme song, Shura no Hana (The Flower of Hell): "Begrieving snow falls/in the dead morning/ Stray dog's howls... I've immersed my body in the river of vengeance/and thrown away my womanhood many moons ago..." (Graphic violence, sexual situations, profanity.) leave a comment

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