Based on Kazuo Koike’s manga, Lady Snowblood perhaps needs no introduction, so archetypal has it become to the genre of female revenge films. Like the Lone Wolf and Cub series (another Koike adaptation) Lady Snowblood fits comfortably in the exploitation genre with its spurting fountains of blood and cool yet burning with vengeful intent heroine; however, the film itself is often surprisingly beautiful with its unusual and innovative direction while the simplicity of its story only serves to make the film even more powerful.
To set the scene - it’s the beginning of the Meiji era when Japan began to open itself to the rest of the world after hundreds of years of seclusion. Having been isolated for so long, Japan begins to feel inferior to some of the major powers of the time and seeks to prove its status by rapidly developing its military to similar power and design to that of other nations. Consequently it begins to conscript young men to serve in this new military, which is obviously an unpopular decision. Wealthy families can pay to have their sons exempt from the draft but this is not an option for the poor. The practice becomes known as a ‘blood tax’ - a term which becomes misunderstood as people take it literally, believing their sons are to be bled and the blood traded to foreigners.
It is believed that these ‘blood tax’ men arrive dressed in white and in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity a young school teacher is murdered by a gang who’ve been defrauding the peasants by convincing them to hand over cash for military exemptions. The schoolteacher’s wife is then abducted by the group and repeatedly raped by its three male members - one of whom then takes her to the city. Having killed him in revenge and hoping to escape to take revenge on the others, the woman is caught and sentenced to life in prison. Knowing she’ll never be able to avenge herself, she goes to great lengths to become pregnant so that her child can finish what she started. However, prison not being the ideal place to give birth, the woman survives only long enough to name her daughter Yuki and lament that the poor child has been born with such an unhappy destiny.
‘Shurayukihime’ - translated as Lady Snowblood - is really more akin to Lady Hellsnow... Shura being a sort of Buddhist 'hell' that’s a land of carnage, and Lady Snowblood is often referred to as a being caught between two worlds and not quite human. It’s also a pun on the Japanese name of Snow White, ‘Shirayukihime’, which is impossible to forget as her white kimono becomes stained red with the blood of the men who have wronged her. Taken in by one of the women at the prison, raised by a strict monk and constantly reminded that she is a child of the netherworld born only to achieve her mother’s vengeance, Lady Snowblood becomes the incarnation of vengeance itself. Determined and unflinching she pursues her prey with bloodthirsty desperation. However, we also see that underneath the need for revenge she sees as her only purpose in life there is also a normal young woman yearning to come out, happily watching children at play and tending flowers.
By the second film however, this side of Lady Snowblood appears to be absent. Having achieved her life’s purpose of avenging the deaths of her mother and her mother’s husband (whom she regards as a father) Yuki wanders aimlessly until she allows herself to be captured and subsequently sentenced to death for her previous exploits. However, times have moved on and we now find ourselves after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war, where the militarists have taken control and the rise of left-wing anarchism is their major fear. The head of the secret police therefore makes our heroine an offer - escape the gallows, enter the house of a well known anarchist as a spy with the intention of recovering an incriminating document and eventually kill the leader of the anarchists. Given little choice Yuki agrees, but comes to sympathise with the people she’s been set to help destroy.
Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance suffers from its nature as a sequel as it can’t possess the same power as its predecessor. The revenge theme having been dealt with in the first picture, what we have here is a slightly convoluted political plot which can’t quite capture the same level of investment as Lady Snowblood’s earlier quest. In comparison with the first film it also feels slightly more camp with its grotesque, gap-toothed henchman and proto-fascist policemen. Yuki’s emptiness by this stage also means that some of her early fight scenes feature her killing with an almost bored resignation, as if she’s fighting because she doesn’t know what else to do but also isn’t sure why she’s bothering to defend herself and remain alive.
In some ways it’s a shame they decided to make a sequel as Lady Snowblood’s first instalment is such a perfect little film that ties itself up so beautifully in the end - ending in the only way films of this type can end. However, even if it doesn’t quite live up to its name, Love Song of Vengeance is by no means bad. It still manages to pack in plenty of intrigue and even more spurting blood geysers than the first film. There’s no point denying though that it’s never as interesting or as captivating after Lady Snowblood’s quest for vengeance has been completed.
Both Lady Snowblood films are classics of their genre and must-sees for all enthusiasts of Japanese cinema. Meiko Kaji’s unhappy heroine has become a pop culture icon - a well-deserved accolade for her tremendous performance as the complicated lady of the netherworld. Fujita’s direction is also extremely impressive with its unusual composition and artistic flourishes creating beautiful vistas of carnage. A bloody tale of vengeance and the futility of pursuing it, Lady Snowblood is a film that belongs in everyone’s collection, even more so on Blu-Ray.