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Lady Snowblood - Shurayukihime (Fujita Toshiya 1973)


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Lady Snowblood
[Shurayukihime]

Genre: Excellent Sword Mistress Revenge Tale

review in one breath

This well drawn tale of revenge follows the quest of Kashima Yuki as she tracks down and annihilates those responsible for the destruction of her family. Through years of training and single-minded intent, she has become a ferocious fountain of vengeance merely waiting to be unleashed upon those whose crimes against her parents and sibling have gone unpunished.


intro

The early 1970's seems to have spawned a flood of female/heroine films in Japan, and some of these are remarkably good. Lady Snowblood, the film currently under review is certainly one of the exemplars and presents a wholly satisfactory and coherent tale of revenge and violence.

The director here is Fujita Toshiya who has directed 33 other films including this film's sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974) and the original and one sequel of Stray Cat Rock.

The lead role here is played by Kaji Meiko, an actress used for several key tough girl/heroine roles during this period. She played the role of Mako, the lead femme fatale in Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970). And a year prior to Lady Snowblood played the hard-as-nails female prisoner Matshushima Nami in both Female Prisoner 701: Scorpion (1972) and Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41 (1972). She will also appear again as Yuki in the sequel to the current film Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974). Kaji is a very convincing tough girl and easily conveys the steely-eyed countenance you'd expect from an old-school female assassin(esse).

The historical setting of the film is quite detailed and unique. The plot revolves around historical realities emerging immediately after the establishment of the Meiji Era. Though very many films are set in the chaos of the years leading up to the Meiji Era, I don't recall seeing any which base themselves in the confusion following Japan's turn toward modernity. The film is careful to provide accurate dates and historical events to buttress the backdrop for the tragedy of this tale. (I discuss this historical setting in depth in my review of this film's sequel.) The characters depicted here range from beggar villages to Westernized elitists. In the midst of these historically transitional figures, the intensely vengeance-driven character of Yuki stands out like a bushido pearl among pebbles.

For some reason, I've recently been watching alot of these 1970s heroine films and it is clear that a few stand far above the rest. The two exemplars which come to mind are this film and director Suzuki Norifumi's 1973 Sex and Fury. These two films both excel due to their having a wholly convincing and compelling narrative wherein audiences realize the motivations of revenge by the lead female characters. Likewise, both stories are self-contained, providing a fully explored beginning, an emotionally compelling development of the heroine, and a intellectually and emotionally satisfying conclusion to the tale.

Where these films significantly differ, however, is in the amount of skin the two directors put into their scenes. Whereas Sex and Fury undeniably deserves a "pink" categorization, no such elements of nudity or explicit female exploitation exist in Lady Snowblood. In other words, the success and popularity of the latter can be attributed wholly to its compelling character and narrative (rather than merely the libidinous gawking of male audience members).

Thus, this comes across as a very solid and entertaining female yakuza/samurai tale in which audience members can find themselves emotionally invested.

story

Kashima Yuki knows nothing of her parents except the tale handed down to her from her caretaker Okiku, a fellow female prisoner present at the time her mother gave birth to Yuki and soon thereafter died. The tale her mother wished Yuki to know is indeed a tragic one of murder, rape and vengeance. Following her release from prison Okiku told a local priest of Yuki's family history. The priest, understanding the purpose for which Yuki had been born, thrust her into an austere and strict regimen of training until she would be able to exact the revenge wished for in her mother's dying breath.

Many years later, Yuki, now a young woman, has come close to locating the four individuals responsible for the murder of her father and the rape of her mother. Though some of the four are now destitute and weak, the others remain formidably rich and well-protected.

Only her single-minded resolution and formidable skills will provide the chance to complete her life-long goal of exacting her mother's revenge.

verdict

This is a very good story with a very compelling (and deadly) lead actress. I like the director's dedication to the historical time period, and the old-school discipline of Yuki stands in stark and believable contrast to the wealth and over-indulgence of the main bad guys here. I also appreciate the sheer PURITY of Yuki. The internal power of her character does not require breast baring or pseudo sado-masochism (as do the "pink" film narratives) in order to rivet audiences' attention. The power she exhibits is one of PURE unadulterated revenge on nearly a demonic level. In fact this is so much the case that the film refers to her repeatedly as a "child of the netherworld" whose sole purpose for existing is merely to mete out a violent retribution upon her murderous victims.

This is definitely one worth checking out. I'm quite sure you'll be glad you did. There are no real flaws or guffaws herein and what you will find is a good old fashioned (but recently modern female-centric) tale of bushdo nobility and karmic payback... BIG TIME!

One last trivia tidbit: This film's theme song, Shura no Hana ("Flower of Carnage"), is sung by none other than Kaji Meiko who, in her day, had quite a singing career, of sorts.

Version reviewed: Region 1 subtitled DVD available at all mainstream venues.

** By the way, the subtitles on the DVD I reviewed (by AnimEigo) were superb and included cultural notes (during the film) which will allow you to catch some of the nuances.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Interesting snapshot of the cultural turmoil immediately following the Meiji Restoration. Yuki is deadly with the sword and she's eager to prove it. Plenty of limb-hacking and flowing bright red blood. No nudity, but rape and sex are elements of the plot. This was really good, and steely-eyed Yuki is HOT! (Though I'm pretty sure she will now kill me for saying that.)

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