It's an old story, and a familiar one, no matter what the locale. A person, disenfranchised from power and authority, takes justice into their own hands. He — or she — seeks out, and dispatches, those deemed unworthy in his or her own eyes, and in the eyes of enough of the common folks that any jury of twelve would have a hard time bringing in a conviction. In the West, we've seen incarnations as diverse as Robin Hood and The Punisher. Japan has its own variants: Zatōichi, the blind masseur-cum-swordsman; Shōtarō Ikenami's acupuncturist/assassin Baian; and Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Mamimura's Shurayuki-hime — better known outside of Japan as Lady Snowblood.
Fans of Asian cult cinema, my own mainstay before anime and manga entered my life, knew about Snowblood thanks to the two live-action films made from the character, and distributed in the West by way of AnimEigo. Movie fans in general learned about her by way of outward osmosis, when Quentin Tarantino explicitly cited Snowblood as one of the influences he mined for Kill Bill. Now Criterion has reissued both Lady Snowblood movies in two-for-one Blu-ray and DVD editions, an opportune way to discover Koike and Mamimura's original manga (available in English, digitally and on dead trees, courtesy of Dark Horse).
Snowblood has more going for it than just the novelty of a female anti-heroine. With that gimmick as a starting point, the original story and the first of the two films use it as a scalpel to dissect Japanese society at the turn of the last century, where Westernization has done little more than give the privileged that many more toys to play with and that many more ways to crush the little guys.
A human weapon
To paraphrase Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, Yuki, the anti-heroine of the title, wasn't merely adopted by revenge, in the manner of Dantes of The Count of Monte Cristo (or for that matter, Oh Dae-su of Oldboy). She was born into it — literally. Her mother gave birth to her while in prison for having avenged the murder of her own husband.
The backstory for that murder works as a convenient scene-setter for the story's overall concerns. A gang of scammers were bilking money from the poor, claiming they could avoid military conscription (into what would eventually become the Russo-Japanese War) if they paid a fee. Yuki's mother had her husband singled out as one of the purported "men in white" drafting innocents into the army, and the scammers murdered him and raped her. She ended up marrying one of the criminals, waiting for the right moment to stab him to death. Her revenge landed her in prison, where she was impregnated by one of any number of lovers taken in the heat of the moment. By having a child, she reasoned, she could send him back out into the world to enact the rest of her vengeance against the remaining members of the gang.
That "him" turns out to be a "her", named Yuki for having been born on a night of heavily falling snow. Raised by a Buddhist monk, a stern taskmaster who schools her in the martial arts, she ventures out into the world armed only with her body and — par for the course in these kinds of stories — a gimmick weapon: a sword concealed inside the shaft of the parasol she carries everywhere.
Zatōichi's story was told over twenty-six feature-length films and four seasons of TV; Lady Snowblood is only four volumes of manga and two movies, but still explores its subject vigorously, by way of three or four basic plotting templates for Yuki's adventures. Template One, the assassin-for-hire template, involves Yuki being enlisted by another who has suffered misfortunes of their own, typically those inflicted by someone in power or with wealth. Template Two involves Yuki closing in on, and executing, the four criminals who were the authors of her pain, something that happens with all deliberation across the course of the manga's four volumes. Template Three flashes back through Yuki's past and upbringing, showing how she was shaped by her mentor into the woman she is now.
Material like this is stock-in-trade for author Koike, he who gave the world two other classic manga stories of revenge and bloodthirst. One was Lone Wolf and Cub (which ran contemporaneously with Snowblood), the story of a father-and-son pair of avenging assassins that cut a swath of its own through Japanese and Western popular culture alike. It, too, used its storyline as a way to examine the injustices of the Tokugawa shogunate, one that kept peace in Japan for two centuries but at no small social cost.
Another, far more infamous, Koike creation was Crying Freeman — also a story about an innocent conscripted into the business of evil. In this case, it was a handsome young potter transformed into a tattooed assassin for a secret organization with world-spanning, Bond-villain plans. Where Lone Wolf and Snowblood are theatrical and cinematic in their violence, Freeman is downright porrnographic, sometimes not even figuratively so. Instead of the cutting social insights of either former title, we got the ultimate triple-X-rated Bond-film-inspired male-machismo fantasy.
Only women bleed
With Snowblood, it always comes down sooner or later to the fact of Yuki being a woman. I mentioned before that the novelty of the idea alone isn't enough; just swapping the sex of a character that would by default be male (meaning, almost all of them) isn't by itself innovative, let alone progressive. How being a woman affects her as a character — what she sees as opposed to what others see, what she chooses to do — matters more.
Being a woman in most societies is an automatic strike against. Snowblood sees Yuki's femininity as one of many things that forces her to remain an outsider. Yuki's status as a woman, and the daughter of a criminal, and a wanderer, and an assassin leave her on the outside of most every interaction. In most every situation Yuki finds herself in, it's a multi-way race as to which outsider status will be the one that affects her the most.
When someone's a perpetual outsider, they tend to do two things. First, they look for whatever form of power they can wield and leverage, and exploit it. This being a seinen manga, one main way that manifests is through how Yuki uses her allure to get all the closer to her goals, to clear a path for herself. At one point she allows a photographer — actually a woman in disguise — to seduce her, the better to slay her for having used her skills to blackmail others. At another, Yuki hides out as a nurse in a private hospital, and allows the (female) head of staff to make amorous advances. By that point in the story, we know enough about Yuki to wonder if she's just grasping for whatever straws of happiness come her way — or if she's using the attraction the other woman feels for her as a way to potentially enlist someone else's help when (not if) she's found out.
The other thing an outsider may do is feel kinship — sometimes reciprocated, sometimes not — with other outsider. A major part of the plotline at the hospital involves a developmentally disabled child who forms a fascination with Yuki's sword. He steals it and inadvertently leads the police to her. Yuki could just kill the boy, but he's done nothing wrong; he can't help being what he is. She, having been born into a hopeless situation herself, knows what that is like. Another, slightly sleazier example, comes by way of a wrestler whose strength and sexual appetites cause him to be stigmatized as a criminal. Yuki is still honor-bound to slit his throat, but allows him to satisfy himself with her body as a parting gift.
Who to bring Shurayuki-hime to the screen but Meiko Kaji, one of the toughest leading ladies to ever grace the Japanese big screen?
Brief as Snowblood's run as a manga was, it excited executives at Toho — home to everyone from Godzilla to Kurosawa's Yojimbo — and in 1973 they drafted Koike into penning the screenplay for a live-action adaptation. Who to star in it? Who but Meiko Kaji, the feral-eyed young woman who had rocketed to stardom a few years earlier in a series of movies that seem like dress rehearsals for this one.
In the Stray Cat Rock series, she played a whole slew of delinquent bad girls, most memorable of them being Mako, the girl gang leader of Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter. That film pitted Kaji and her girls against a rival delinquent gang of men, but as with many Nikkatsu exploitation pictures from the '70s, there were multiple subtexts (U.S./Japan relations during the Vietnam War, racism, sexism) bubbling away under the knife fights and shootouts.
Likewise, in the Female Convict Scorpion and Wandering Ginza Butterfly series she starred in shortly afterwards, Kaji was the brooding, charismatic center of the action, much of it interleaved with left-leaning social commentary. (Nikkatsu in those days was something of an incubator for social-protest and experimental-cinema directors: as long as the movies had their requisite dollops of sex'n'violence and a suitably salacious title, the executives didn't care what else was in them.)
It only seemed natural, then, for Kaji to trade in her switchblade for an umbrella sword, and swap her bellbottoms and modish floppy hat for a kimono. The period and the trappings may have been different, but the role echoed so many others from her career: a fierce young woman, an outsider several times over, speaks truth to (often illegitimate) power by way of violence. It helped that she was paired back up with director Toshiya Fujita, helmer of two of the Stray Cat Rock films, someone who already understood how to use Kaji's steely screen presence.
Where the opening of the manga dropped us into the middle of Yuki's mission, the film opens on Yuki's birth in prison — beautifully photographed, with nighttime snow falling just outside a barred window. There, Yuki's mother makes her plea to her fellow inmates to have her child take the revenge she couldn't. From there, it switches back and forth between Yuki closing in on her prey, flashbacks to her childhood (where the cruel training she receives only makes her stronger when it's not killing her), and a mini-epic reconstruction of the horrors her mother suffered. It's all shot and staged in classic 1970s chanbara action-cinema style, with blazing primary colors (like the gaudy splashes of old-school, paintlike stage blood that decorate the cast and sets).
Second verse, far less than the first
Koike's screenplay condenses Yuki's quest down to its essentials, and highlights something that sometimes got lost in the shuffle of the manga's various storylines: the way taking revenge not only hollows out a person, but too often leaves you with hands closing on thin air. The closer Yuki draws to her mother's tormentors, the more difficult it becomes for her to find the satisfaction she believed would come of finishing the job. One of the remaining men has died. Another has become a hollowed-out husk, whose daughter allegedly supports him by selling her wares, when in truth she's selling her body. It's a quandary modeled closely after many of the same ones Yuki faced in the manga: how can she take revenge against someone who's just as far down the heap as she is, especially when she knows doing so will hurt others?
The question becomes all the more complicated after a small-time journalist adapts Yuki's story into a novel, the better to bring Yuki's tormentors to light — and to lure the rest of them out into the open. But it, too, fails more than it succeeds: it only leads Yuki to one of them after they have already committed suicide (she takes out her anger on the corpse by slicing it in half), and allows the aforementioned daughter of one of her victims to track Yuki down and take revenge in turn. That last works as a cruel reversal of Yuki's outlook: learning the sordid details of Yuki's origins has not inspired the girl to feel kinship with a fellow sufferer. Her family, her revenge, comes first — much as it did with Yuki herself.
Despite only providing a small fraction of the total storytelling that unfolds in the manga, the first Snowblood movie still works well as both an adaptation and as a standalone story. It ends bluntly enough to allow any audience to assume there's nothing more to follow, but apparently its success allowed a sequel to be produced the following year. Unfortunately, the best things about Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance are its title and the opening ten minutes or so. Yuki, sentenced to death by the authorities, is liberated from prison by the head of the secret police. Her mission is to track down an anarchist with secret documents in his possession that could bring down the government, but Yuki decides to cast her lot with the oppressed once more.
Like many ill-conceived sequels, Love Song ignores — or at least downplays — the thing that made the original movie, and the source material, so magnetic: Yuki herself. Even if the politically tinged plot does touch on the themes that are all at the heart of the story (corrupt power vs. common livelihoods, etc.), those things only worked because they drove Yuki and gave her something to push against. Here, the story practically relegates her to the status of a bystander; the action involves her, but it isn't about her. Even the action is unimpressive, with most of it relegated to bursts at the beginning and end.
Cultural artifacts like Snowblood come with so much that's assumed because of the target audience. When AnimEigo brought Snowblood to U.S. audiences by way of their DVD edition first published some years back, the movie received the usual treatment accorded by the company: copious cultural notes provided by way of both an optional extra subtitle track, and an inserted booklet. Dark Horse, too, end-noted their manga editions not only with vocabulary, but details about the times and the manners. What's disappointing, then, about Criterion's edition, is not the quality of the product — the movies have never looked or sounded better — but the way all those little details simply aren't part of their presentation. In Criterion's version, for instance, we never learn that the curious human-shaped baskets woven by the daughter of one of Yuki's victims are in fact sleep aids; one crawls into them on a hot night to allow air to flow around the body and cool it.
This is more the fanboy than the critic in me speaking. I know full well something like Lady Snowblood has to stand or fall on its own with any audience. And in the end, it doesn't need the support of cultural notes to work — not when it draws on an old story, a familiar one, one that ought to work for any audience where women are one-down, where power is misused, and where audiences respond to stylized violence. In other words, almost every audience there is.