Friday, June 6, 2008

REVIEW: Lady Snowblood - Toshiya Fujita (1973)

Reviewed by Mark Saint-Cyr

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is the time-honored message at the heart of Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus Kill Bill (well, that, and perhaps “cinema is king”). Like many others, I was completely enraptured by the dazzling adrenaline high that the film offered when I first saw it, but it wasn’t long before I turned my gaze to broader horizons. I was compelled to find and watch some of the original films that inspired Tarantino to create his mixtape masterpiece, partially to be able to differentiate between the original and the homage, but also to try and dig up some of the same cinematic gold that made Kill Bill so bloody (pun intended - apologies) fun.

If Kill Bill is built upon a foundation made up of bits and pieces of other films, Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime, 1973) is undeniably one of its keystones. The titular character (also known as Yuki), played by Japanese exploitation queen Meiko Kaji, is literally the embodiment of revenge, dubbed as such by her dying mother in order to even the score with the four criminals who destroyed her family before she was even born. Talk about living up to your parents’ expectations!

Numerous flashbacks illustrate Yuki’s background: how her father was brutally murdered, how her mother endured rape and torture before living her last days in a women’s prison, and how Yuki was taken in by the gruff, Pai Mei-like priest who trained her for her life’s mission. While the straightforward storyline addresses matters such as destiny and purpose, it also depicts Yuki as the archetypal avenging angel, traveling with her sword cleverly sheathed in her umbrella, tracking down her quarry one by one. In addition to Yuki’s back story, each villain is also given an admirable amount of attention in terms of character development. For example, one of them, since the incident, has degenerated into a sick old man who has fallen to drink and gambling by the time Yuki comes looking for him. He lives with his daughter, who pays for his medicine and booze by selling herself while pretending to sell her wicker goods so as to not upset him, and eventually comes to play her own part in the revenge narrative. It is quite rewarding to find such intriguing material within what is essentially a B-movie, and there are times when the sense of drama borders on the Shakespearian (particularly in the beautiful compositions that juxtapose snowfall with bloodshed to great effect). There is also a fair amount of supporting characters on Yuki’s side (including a young writer who takes an interest in her past) and a history lesson of-sorts in the background of the four villains who represent the corruption and turmoil that occurred in the post-Tokugawa Japan in which the film is set.

But really, all that is besides the point, which is to see Kaji obtain her revenge bit by bloody bit. Her cold stare, fixed determination and iconic status as kimono-clad angel of death truly set a lofty example that numerous later actors and films would try to match. Throw in the at-times funk-inspired music and the geysers of red paint that spray throughout the film, and what you have is a gem of ‘70s exploitation cinema and, really, one of the great revenge classics. So, before you sit down to your umpteenth viewing of Kill Bill, why not give the original a try? Trust me - it’s well worth it, and hey, now you’ll get bragging rights.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.

No comments: