On a snowy night in a woman’s jail a young mother, Sayo (Miyoko Akaza) gives birth to an girl surrounded by her fellow inmates. We learn that this woman was attacked by a ruthless gang who murdered her husband and young son and raped her. She successfully tracked down and killed the first of them, but was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. After giving birth to Yuki, she tells the women around her that her daughter is fated to become her avenger. Yuki is trained by Priest Dokai (Ko Nishimura) in martial arts, becoming adept with the sword, and all the while having only revenge on her mind. Twenty years later, Yuki (Meiko Kaji), sets off to find the others who wronged her mother.
Based on the manga by Kazuo Koike (Lone Wolf and Cub) with a screenplay by Norio Osada, director Toshiya Fujita creates an intense thriller packed with violent action. The story is chaptered, a reflection of its manga origins, and this creates a great forward momentum as Yuki tackles each challenge on her road to revenge. It also utilises an achronological approach to storytelling, using flashbacks or asides to paint a full picture of what happened, building up the legend of ‘Shurayuki-hime’ little by little. There are also a number of unexpected twists to the tale, as Yuki finds the path to vengeance is far from simple. Later in the film Yuki meets an author (Toshio Kurosawa) who writes and publishes her story, which creates an interesting dynamic as it contrasts this novelisation with the ‘true story’ we are watching, intensifying the impact of Yuki’s actions.
The film does not shy away from scenes of bloodshed as Yuki cuts her way through various assailants and the targets of her revenge. Meiko Kaji excels in the action sequences. The choreography is rarely extravagant, but is sharp and brutal, further heightening the sense of how deadly an assassin she has become. The training montages of Yuki as a child are interspersed with the story of her hunt for those who wronged her mother, thus layering the portrayal of the character as we glean more about her upbringing and what set her on this destructive path. The cinematography and editing are engaging, not only in the way that the film is paced, through chaptering and flashbacks, but in the scenes themselves, with cuts to extreme close-ups, or zoom outs in the case of one death helping to draw out the emotional resonance of the scenes. There is also a sunset motif that is well utilised, the idea of the setting sun perhaps representative of the death that Yuki brings in her wake, or her own slow decent into hell. Other elements that work well, and lend a manga style to the film, are the use of on screen captions for characters and the use of illustrated segments for historical references.
Meiko Kaji gives an amazing performance, stern and unforgiving. Kaji also sang the iconic theme song ‘Shura no Hana’, that bookends the film. The main villains, Banzo Takemura (Noboru Nakaya), Okono Kitahama (Sanae Nakahara) and Gishiro Tsukamoto (Eiji Okada) are all incredibly unlikeable, but each is given their own personality. Takemura seems genuinely ashamed and regretful of his crimes; Okono has now become a gang leader and shows no remorse; and Tsukamoto has moved on completely, almost dismissive of his former actions. It is these characterisations that make “Lady Snowblood” more than a simple action film. While the central plot is straightforward, it is bolstered by themes of struggle and poverty, of the introduction of European values into the country, all of which help create a vivid world.
“Lady Snowblood” takes place at the beginning of the Meiji Era, as we are told in narration. European ‘civility’ is clashing with the brutality of the former period; a theme brought into sharp focus in the final scenes of the film that take place at a ball with international visitors. Yuki stands out starkly in her kimono, in contrast to the guests in suits and ballgowns. There is also discussion of the notion of revenge, what it means and whether it can ever assuage the anger of someone who has been wronged. Yuki spends her entire life in this quest and the film asks poignantly towards the end what has become of her as a person, having devoted her entire existence to seeking vengeance.