She never cracks a smile. Hate rests in her wide onyx eyes, her body language speaking in tongues that suggest she’ll cut your heart out if you come so far as interrupting a thought. Don’t make judgments regarding her personality based on her opaque skin, her childlike innocence, her soft manner of dress; be fooled by the way she presents herself and you’ll come to regret it, becoming another victim in her path of bloody revenge. She was born to seek vengeance, and if her mission is obstructed by Buddha himself, she’ll kill him too. It is mercy, compassion, and forgiveness she lacks, not rationality.
I am, of course, speaking of Lady Snowblood’s eponymous heroine, who goes by the name of Yuki and who doesn’t much care if you’re bothered by her unrelenting ability to slice and maim the villains who confront her on a regular basis. Played by the ravishing Meiko Kaji, a great beauty whose porcelain features make her even more interesting of a revenge connoisseur, Yuki is a forgotten action heroine who rivals the likes of Foxy Brown, Beatrix Kiddo, and Black Widow, selling a character most would have trouble conveying seriously.
By now, Lady Snowblood has gained traction in the film community due to its huge impact on Quentin Tarantino’s flawless Kill Bill duet, and more recently because of its Criterion Collection revamping, which will hopefully give it notoriety more widespread than the cultish infamy through which it has treaded for 40-some years.
A hidden masterpiece it is — not an exploitative “girl with a weapon” movie a la They Call Her One Eye or I Spit On Your Grave, it is a work of severed limb surrounded poetry, defeating its budgetary limitations through extraordinary camerawork and artistically wondrous direction from Toshiya Fujita. Its scenery is breathtaking, its violence high-wired and strangely kinetic; with little, it diffuses irresistible celluloid wizardry.
Though I wish it were slightly more grandiose in its scenes of violence (which make the film fresh again after some goings are rough), Lady Snowblood’s story is more attentive than we’d expect with material like this — set in the late 1800s, it follows the unequalled Yuki as she begins her years-in-the-making revenge quest. Through flashback, we discover that her mother (Miyoko Akaza), along with her husband and son, were attacked by a gang of vicious criminals before her birth, her mother the only survivor.
At first, the latter attempts to find vengeance herself, but is instead caught and imprisoned. Knowing that she will never be able to escape the confines of her cell, she intentionally gets herself pregnant so that the baby born will exist purely to avenge the sins done to her family. Two decades later, the baby grows up to be Yuki, who never experienced a childhood and who has never known anything besides bloodlust. With the four individuals responsible for her family’s ruin still living life as though nothing has changed, she is determined to off them cruelly and efficiently — we can only wonder what her life’s purpose will be once her mission is completed and the thirst of revenge is quenched.
As it is an above-average B-movie, I’ll be the first to admit that Lady Snowblood has a few story-based issues, whether they be because of the decision to put more attention onto watery drama than onto fight scenes, or the way the mini-revenges themselves are not always as gratifying as we’d like them to be.
But complaints should not abound in a film without the financial capabilities of Tarantino — considering what and whom it has, Lady Snowblood is a minor masterpiece of the revenge genre, expertly filmed and featuring visuals bold enough to kick you in the crotch. Kaji gives a masterful performance, understated to an unnerving end, and Fujita’s direction feels grand even when certain components refuse to be. There isn’t anything quite like Lady Snowblood, and fingers are crossed that it goes from perpetual underdog to Death Wish overthrower. It’s something special not to be missed. B+