Shaw Bros. Spotlight
On a windy, wintry night deep inside a prison cell for female inmates, with searing pain erupting through her body, a woman delivers birth to a baby girl. With her dying breath, the mother whispers a life mission to her child Yuki: avenge her murdered father, big brother and soon to be dead mother. Yuki grows up to be a strikingly beautiful if eerily pale-looking woman (Meiko Kaji) that traverses late 18th century Japan to hunt and annihilate the four foul characters who took advantage of her family during a time of great national turmoil. The film occasionally jumps to and fro in the story’s timeline to juxtapose Yuki’s adult mindset, one filled with quiet rage, and her childhood years whilst under martial arts tutelage of an old priest (Ko Nishimura).
The 1970s ostensibly saw the rise of two variations of the revenge movie. In the United States, 1974’s Death Wish starring Charles Bronson wowed fans (and rustled other’s feathers) by depicting the story of a simple man driven to bloody vengeance after the death of his loved ones. The film is the dark and gritty interpretation many other imitators have attempted to ape ever since. The protagonist is not someone who, under normal circumstances, is prone to violent outrages. His descent into darkness is expedient. 1973’s Lady Snowblood is also a revenge tale but told with an unapologetic mixing of styles that don’t necessarily look as though they should go together (and sometimes actually do not), producing a unique visual and tonal experience. Its protagonist has spent her entire life dedicating herself to training in the martial arts and investigating the whereabouts of her prey.
There is more good than bad to Lady Snowblood yet the film is hampered by some odd choices affecting the narrative’s momentum. Whatever issues plague the film, most if not all relate to the story’s structure. For one, the filmmakers, unfortunately, feel the need to jump back and forth in the timeline more than once to provide backstory to inform viewers what made Yuki the cold, deadly machine she is in her adult life. For all intents and purposes, the narrative requires no such time traveling, especially since the picture’s opening scene depicts the grisly birth of the protagonist and alludes to her mother’s plight. Why not go from there and build momentum organically by sharing young Yuki’s upbringing in chronological order, therefore allowing the audience to digest her development from relatively innocent (if damned) child to shell of a human being hell-bent on killing villains?
Lady Snowblood Has Enough style to supplant What it Lacks in Narrative
The latter half of the picture includes an additional male character whose purpose is not very clear. An author and artist (Toshio Kurosawa) publish Yuki’s story in serialized fashion, a cute nod to the fact that the film’s source material is a manga. There is however a reveal later about his own background and how it ties into Yuki’s quest which fails to impact the story in any meaningful thematic or emotional way, not mention that it takes the spotlight away from Yuki for too long, this in a movie barely over 90 minutes long.
Thankfully the remainder of Fujita’s film is really quite a stimulating collection of provocative, stylishly rendered images and dramatic beats that provide the film with its beating black heart. While story structure eludes Toshiya Fujita at times in Lady Snowblood, his eye for appropriately grim, beautiful, and even discomforting imagery is impressive. The film’s gas is essentially its frequently twisted mood communicated via striking cinematography, editing, and makeup. Take for instance the titular assassin’s ghostly allure. Always immaculately dressed, Yuki carries with her a parasol in which she conceals her sword, terrific juxtaposition of an ordinary harmless object actually used as a case for her weapon of choice. More importantly, is the arresting visual of her face. Beyond the fact that Keiko Kaji is an attractive woman, her presentation in the film as Lady Snowblood speaks for itself, what with her unhealthy pale face. Is it makeup used for effect, much like a superhero or vigilante dons a mask or a cowl, or has her pent up anger washed away her colour, an indication that Yuki has lost her humanity? There is an interesting case to be made for either one of those possibilities, each one equally satisfying and fitting.
Just as pertinent with regards to building atmosphere is the choice to balance highly artistic style with a documentary feel. Much of the set design and lighting, especially during and immediately following the climax, lends the picture a very heightened feel, creating an exaggerated version of reality. The ballroom gala, the evocatively aristocratic costumes worn by the guests, secret rooms hidden behind mirrors, a double agent disguised as the chief villain to send Yuki off his scent, the rich orange hue against the snow as sunrise occurs just as a bloody and battered Yuki leaves the party, stylish touches abound to hint that this is, after all, a fantasy. Even the soundtrack, peppered with disco groove beats and an American military parade hymn, is striking for how oddly placed it is. With all of these fancy flourishes director, Fujita opts to shoot the picture in handheld style, a technique usually reserved for films that want to immerse the viewer in a realistic way in a realistic setting.
The decision to produce a documentarian visual identity, while often effective, does come back to haunt the film in some of the action scenes. For the 1960s and 70s martial arts movie junkies the best comparison is how Chang Cheh filmed Golden Swallow at Shaw Brothers. It mostly depends on where the camera is positioned rather than how it moves. Some encounters are lively and visceral, brilliant examples of Snowblood’s ruthless efficiency. Other times director Fujita has the camera much too close to the actors, nullifying the deadly grace with which the protagonist strikes her enemies down.
It’s all quite bizarre and maybe even difficult to take in on first viewing. At the very least the movie is certainly aiming to provide a very different action movie experience, a goal that should be celebrated for what it’s worth. Even the aspects that do not mesh as effortlessly (the soundtrack is a bit too ‘out there’ for this type of movie) are not enough to dampen the experience so much that Lady Snowblood fails to earn a recommendation. While imperfect, the film is deserving of at least one viewing, quite likely a memorable one at that.