All I really knew of Lady Snowblood before watching it and its sequel was that it inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, which I happen to like, though I’ve never been quite comfortable liking such violent extravaganzas. My feelings after finishing Lady Snowblood (not its sequel, which I’ll talk about below) were similar: I loved it, and that made me uncomfortable. Here we have a tale of revenge that absolutely revels in the telling: it jumps back and forth in time to keep us on the edge of our seat, it employs shots of Kazuo Koike’s original manga at one point to give some background, it gleefully allows red, watery blood to squirt out of even the smallest wounds. It is strangely invigorating to see so much life and energy bursting through and the story is fun to watch unfold. It’s so compelling, in fact, that one of the central characters is a kind of chronicler who feeds the masses the Lady Snowblood story in his periodic stories. Fortunately, this is a film that also knows we should be uncomfortable for feeling glee at the bloody melees, but we can recognize that discomfort and still have a great time.
If you’ve seen the Kill Bill films, you have already got a pretty good handle on the basic plot and even aesthetics of Lady Snowblood. A woman brought up to be an assassin in the last days of the nineteenth century has a list of people who have done wrong and who must pay. She single-mindedly checks them off her list.
However, Lady Snowblood, played by the lovely Meiko Kaji, has a different motive that Kill Bill‘s Uma Thurman. When the film begins, we see snow falling in the night while a new born baby cries. This baby has been born in prison, and her dying mother gives her a mission right then and there. This baby was always meant to accomplish what her mother could not: complete vengeance!
The film goes back and forth to show us Lady Snowblood methodically finding her targets, to Lady Snowblood’s training as a youth, and all the way back to the original wrong: in 1873, the year before Lady Snowblood is born in prison, a teacher, his wife, and their son are attacked by four criminals. The teacher and the son are killed while the woman is taken by one of the men. Her mind is always on revenge, and within the year she has killed the man and gone to prison for murder. She knows she will not survive to kill the other three . . . and that takes us to the birth of Lady Snowblood.
It is, as I said earlier, an exciting film to watch. The action scenes are virtuosic displays of set design and filled with gory surprises. They are deliberately overwrought, so the faint of heart should stay away . . . not that the story itself is any less disturbing. And so the film skirts a delicate line: on one side is gratuitous violence for the sake of violence; on the other, and this is where the film falls for me, is provocative violence that demands the viewer confront his or her own blood-pumping heart. Where is the redemption in all of this vengeance, especially for the assassin who was not directly wronged and who, in fact, is never given a chance to seek any other destiny?
As much as I enjoyed the first film on this disc, I disliked the second almost as much. I heard going in to the sequel that, sure, Love Song of Vengeance is not as good as the first, but it is still a good movie. I’m not sure. I think Love Song of Vengeance is a middling movie that looks even worse when set next to its vastly superior predecessor.
The bright spot? Meiko Kaji is back as Lady Snowblood. But she looks tired. In fact, the whole film looks tired; even the blood splatters with much less vigor. Perhaps it is because this story is weighted by its political content. Here, Lady Snowblood finds herself between the strong and “official” police force and the anarchists seeking to cause some kind of revolution. The story is not nearly as captivating as the original, and it uses none of the delightful techniques the first used to keep us on our toes . . . it just rolls out like a red carpet, taking itself a bit too seriously, undercutting the exploration of violence and vengeance that was done so well in Lady Snowblood.
I hoped for so much, so perhaps I’m being unfair. I should watch the film again without watching the original, just to see how good it is if not compared to the near masterpiece. The great things, though, is that we get both films in one case, and we can do with them what we will. I, for one, know that I’ll be watching Lady Snowblood often!
The Criterion Edition:
- First, and the best in my mind, is a 10:18-minute interview with Kazuo Koike, the writer of the original manga. Koike talks about the graphic novel, his methods, what he thinks is appropriate to show and what is not. For him, nothing in his work is gratuitous. The interview is edited together nicely with shots from the original graphic novel.
- Next, the disc includes a 21:28-minute interview Norio Osada, the screenwriter who adapted the graphic novel for the first movie and then wrote the second. Fortunately, most of the interview deals with the process of adapting the graphic novel, which is a very interesting subject.
- The disc closes with a couple of trailers and is paired with a fold-out poster insert with an essay, “Flowers of Carnage,” by critic Howard Hampton, which looks nicely at each film and how they differ.