Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Lady Snowblood (1973)

          Yet another ultraviolent saga that made a deep impression on Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed heavily from this film for his epic Kill Bill project (originally released as two parts in 2003 and 2004), Lady Snowblood is among the most pictorially beautiful action films ever made. Not least among its visual wonderments is leading lady Meiko Kaji, who plays an immaculately dressed assassin with a sword blade hidden inside the handle of her ever-present umbrella. Adapted from a Japanese comic strip, Lady Snowblood tells a patently ridiculous story about a vengeance mission handed down from one generation to the next, and the way director Toshiya Fujita fills the screen with artfully staged dismemberments, geysers of blood, and impalements is not for the faint of heart. (Released unrated in the U.S., the picture almost certainly would have received an X-rating for gore.) Incredibly, Fujita manages to tell a fairly compelling story without benefit of realism and restraint, getting by on sheer intensity and style.
          Although events are presented in a jangled mosaic, a linear narrative emerges. In late 19th-century Japan, the government orders a military draft, and a band of criminals roams the countryside, pulling a vicious scam on gullible villagers. The criminals claim they can sell draft exceptions for cash. Occasionally, to create the illusion of governmental authority, the criminals attack and execute persons for “illegally dodging” the draft. One such innocent victim is a schoolteacher with a wife and a young child. The criminals kill the teacher and his son. His widow, Sayo (Miyoko Akaza), declares revenge, hunting down and killing one of the criminals. Captured and imprisoned for the murder, she has sex with every man in prison until she’s impregnated, then declares her daughter, Yuki, an “asura demon” with only one purpose in life—killing the remaining criminals. Sayo dies in prison, and her child finds a new home with a priest who teaches her subterfuge and swordplay. Upon reaching adulthood, Yuki (Kaji) begins her vengeance mission, but complications ensue.
          The film is structured into chapters with florid titles (e.g., “Bamboo Wives and Tears of Death”), and because Yuki befriends an illustrator who agrees to tell her story in book form, the screen occasionally fills with the panels from the comic that inspired the movie. It’s all very meta, sometimes absurdly so. Yet somehow Fujita pulls the disparate elements together, creating a crazy-quilt pattern of varied storytelling modes. Momentum sags during Act Two, but Fujita rights the ship for the outrageously violent climax.
          Nearly everything that makes Lady Snowblood interesting is visual, so it’s a uniquely immersive cinematic experience. Many battle scenes and even some important emotional moments are presented without dialogue, putting the emphasis on composition, editing, and sound design. All of Fujita’s collaborators bolster this approach with exemplary contributions; the costuming, production design, and special effects are gorgeous. In particular, a scene of Yuki attacking a victim in an alleyway while snow falls transforms savagery into a kind of horrific choreography. (Kill Bill features an homage to this scene.)
          As for how leading lady Kaji fits into the mix, she provides more than just her beauty, though her looks are an important aspect of the film’s visual splendor. Whether she’s summoning intensity for a fight or thrilling with adrenaline after vanquishing a foe, Kaji imbues the notion of a character bred only to kill with something resembling credibility. She returned for Lady Snowblood 2: Song of Vengeance (1974), again directed by Fujita; in that one, the title character goes to prison for her crimes in the first picture, then gets an offer of clemency in exchange for working as a government agent.

Lady Snowblood: GROOVY

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