All this month, SYFY FANGRRLS is celebrating Warrior Women Month, sharing the stories of female warriors in folklore, fantasy, and genre from around the world. These women — real and imagined alike — inspire us to make change and fight for what's right, no matter the cost.
In the beginning, Lady Snowblood was a manga character, written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Kazuo Kamimura, and her story ran over 51 issues. The full collection has stayed in print since it was published to coincide with the release of the film in 1973. Shortly after the comic debuted, the film rights were procured, and director Toshiya Fujita was signed on to adapt the tale of Yuki, a woman born into a long-standing revenge plot.
Lady Snowblood is portrayed by actor Meiko Kaji, who was known for several successful action movie series of the time, including the Juvenile Delinquent and Stray Cat Rock series. Her entries there were likewise under the direction of Fujita, the director of both Snowblood and its sequel. She had reportedly grown weary of one-dimensional roles, and so this story came as a welcome change-up. Incidentally, she also sang the theme song, which plays at the beginning and end of the film. Kaji is a great casting choice for the mostly non-verbal role, and some of the most memorable moments of the movie are her steely glare when she stares down her opponents with zero remorse.
A woman named Sayo gives birth to her infant daughter in prison while the snow falls outside her window. In her dying moments, she is surrounded by a small group of women, serving her as midwives. She tells them her tragic origin story. She had once been married, with a son, before four people came and killed her family. Emotionally destroyed, she went with one of them and slaughtered him during sex, but was put in prison before she could carry out her vengeance on the others. In jail, she seduced many prison guards, ensuring that she would be pregnant before her failing health killed her. Naming her infant daughter Yuki after the snow, she makes them promise to see that she is trained to destroy the remaining killers. Like the chorus of a classic Greek tragedy, the midwives listen intently, sympathizing, and promise to deliver her daughter to the man who can train her to carry out her mother's vengeance.
Yuki grows into an adult and goes in search of those who so grievously wronged her family. Although matters of morality come up when she meets and even nearly becomes friends with the children of those she is meant to slay, she never deviates from her plan. In the end, she staggers out of the home of her primary foe and is stabbed by the daughter of one of the other killers. The 2 women look at each other, the other finally running away as Yuki staggers across the snowy landscape alone, bleeding out. In the end, she falls against the snow and screams, only to rise once more in the early morning hours.
While the first film was a study in generational trauma and a woman attempting to appease her mother’s need for revenge despite the personal cost, Love Song of Vengeance is where Yuki and the plot just go wild. With her initial mission complete, she wanders the countryside during the Russo-Japanese war of the early 1900s, apparently just murdering her way through entire armies because she’s on the most wanted list. Officials keep trying to arrest her and she kills them, finding herself caught in an endless cycle of violence. The movie kicks off with Yuki exhaustedly staggering down a long path and slashing every man who comes near her with her sword. When a whole group of men has ensnared her by the wrist, she one-handedly takes them out anyway, chucking a sword at a guy and knocking him off a horse, which she then steals to escape them.
The second film breaks away from much of the standard revenge plot so commonly seen in crime movies, developing into full-fledged political commentary. Yuki is eventually captured when she is shown kindness by a random traveler. The next day, a small army descends on her, and she finally allows herself to be taken. She is sentenced to death but captured again by men who wish to use her as a political assassin. Thus, she goes undercover to investigate an anarchist, one of the few who survived after state-sanctioned killings that had taken place upon his friends the year before. Knowing her purpose, he takes her to show her their graves and asks that she join him instead of taking out the state’s revenge. She agrees, the desire for justice welling up in her heart once more.
Unquestionably, these films feature some of the most entertaining and epic fight scenes from an era well known for great fight scenes. Kaji had time to develop her identity as an action star in her previous films, but her moves as Yuki are fascinating because they are fast and to the point. The squirting red blood and carnage atop tranquil scenes of forests and beaches in Japan add a certain element of beauty to the film, and the aesthetic has stood the test of time, influencing filmmakers up into the modern age.
Lady Snowblood is to this day one of the best-remembered films of early ‘70s Japan, at least for international audiences. Besides its popularity upon its release, art house directors of today hold the film in high regard, and it has received its own Criterion Collection remaster. Director Quentin Tarantino definitely knows its greatness. Several scenes in the movie Kill Bill would be kindly considered direct homages bordering on plagiarism. He’s rumored to have played the films for cast and crew during breaks. Tarantino's interest is definitely the least important thing about these films, but it bears to be kept in mind as it has been one of the primary things that brought new audiences to the film. Viewers will certainly note the resemblance.
Regardless of everything, the most important part of the Lady Snowblood mythos is Yuki herself. The compelling study of a woman who is beautiful on the outside but a demon on the inside might be nothing new for its time period, but there is certainly something to be said for her specific brutality and how it contrasts with the empathy that audiences and the other characters develop for her over the course of several films. Yuki does get revenge, but it is never her revenge, and it doesn’t make her happy. Instead, she is left to wander, fulfilling her destiny as a weapon of vengeance, but losing everything in the process.