Lady Snowblood (1973) by Toshiya Fujita

Blizzard from the Netherworld



By Pieter - Jan Van Haecke

For some, Toshiya Fujita’s revenge film “Lady Snowblood” will inevitably be linked to Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill vol. 1”, for which it was a major inspiration; Tarantino borrowed aspects of the plot and narrative structure, used the song ‘The flower of carnage’ and let the cinematography inspire him. For all the influence “Lady Snowblood” had on Tarantino, it might be surprising to conclude that the two “Lady Snowblood” movies have an anomalous character in Fujita’s oeuvre, as nothing he made, before or after, bears any stylistic resemblance to the first and second movie. But, how anomalous these narratives may have been, what Fujita created with “Lady Snowblood” is nothing short of a cult classic.

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The narrative of “Lady Snowblood” starts on a snowy evening at the beginning of the Meiji restoration. In a dark prison in Tokyo, Sayo Kashima (Miyoko Akaza) gives birth to a child. Referring to the snowy day on which she was born, her mother names her Yuki and, in her dying moments, underlines her fate to exact revenge on those who raped her and who murdered her husband and Yuki’s big brother.

After years of training with a Buddhist priest Dokai (Kô Nishimura), the journey of Yuki (Meiko Kaji) for revenge finally starts. Aided by Matsuemon (Hitoshi Takagi), a leader of street beggars and by the leftist writer Ashiro Ryurei (Toshio Kurosawa), she is able to track down and kill Takemura Banzo (Noboru Nakaya), Kitahama Okone (Sanae Nakahara), preparing her for a final confrontation with Gishirô Tsukamoto (Eiji Okada), who is now a right-wing arms dealer involved with the government.


Besides being a straight forward revenge story centering on a strong female character, “Lady Snowblood” has diverse political dimensions that underpin the setting of the narrative. Set in the early Meiji period, a time of transition from a feudal system, the Tokugawa Bakufu, to a modern westernized Japan, the first tension that is sensible is the one between modernity and tradition. Throughout the narrative, themes of corruption and exploitation evoke this tension, a tension that, in the end, will find its most apparent translation in the western styled masquerade ball where the final showdown goes down.

But one should not read “Lady Snowblood” as a statement to return to the tradition of old, as a more subtle, a more pressing commentary aligns with the first tension. Wrapped up in the guise of western decadency, the narrative vocalizes a subtle leftist commentary on right-wing politics and imperialism. The last villain that plunges to his death, pulls down a Japanese flag with him. His blood taints it, his right-wing imperialism taints it.

The narrative of “Lady Snowblood” puts the dimension of revenge and destiny into question - the dimension of destiny counteracting a reading of Shurayuki as the embodiment of female empowerment. Furthermore, the purpose of revenge questioned as such, as the lack of a positive catharsis that follows the conclusion of Yuki’s revenge, confronts us and Yuki with the emptiness that lies beyond.

While each actor gives a great performance, it is Meiko Kaji that really steals the show. Her captivating and mesmerizing presence haunts every image of the narrative. Besides bringing the feral calmness and cool determination of Shurayuki, the ashura (demon) clad in a stylish kimono on her way to fulfill her destiny of taking revenge, memorably to life, she is also able to underline, with her phenomenal emotional subtlety in facial expression, the compassionate side of Shurayuki.

The episodically told narrative of “Lady Snowblood” - the convoluted plot of Kazuo Koike’s manga inventively condensed by Norio Osada, is approached with a refreshing creativity. The narrative travels smoothly across time in surprising ways (e.g. flashbacks within flashbacks) and incorporates frames of the original manga effortlessly. Furthermore, each important character is painted on the screen with a certain depth and personality.


The visuals in “Lady Snowblood” are utterly stylish and the careful attention that went into their composition is apparent, the cinematographer being Masaki Tamura. The camera, in general, moves through the narrative space with a raw fluidity, the occasional avant-gardish shot creating moments of decorative flourish. Each action scene, irrespective of their focus on Shurayuki or the impact of her sword, is framed with an exhilarating elegance. The interplay between red and white, as a sort of literal translation of the name Snowblood, is a recurring visual motif in the movie; the pure white of the snow providing the canvas for the painterly crimson red of the blood that gushes around in abundance.

“Lady Snowblood” proves to be an expressionistic cinematographed revenge tale, with powerful and stylish imagery that lingers in one’s mind. Empowered by the mesmerizing performance of Meiko Kaji, Fujita artfully translated Koike’s true purpose to the screen: the creation of a strong, beautiful demonic woman who turns cutting down people, with her beautiful sword, into an art.


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Asian Film Vault: Lady Snowblood (1973) by Toshiya Fujita
Lady Snowblood (1973) by Toshiya Fujita
Blizzard from the Netherworld
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