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Exploitation Cinema: Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime)

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The ultimate story of revenge, Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime) laid the groundwork for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films and proved to be the inspiration for several others. It is a blood-spattered and beautiful picture, directed by Toshiya Fujita with all sorts of fierce, blood-spurting glee. While many would argue and perhaps complain that this gem of a samurai exploitation flick is only getting attention because of Tarantino’s homage/rip-off, any awareness of Fujita’s little blood-fest is good news in my book.

Thematically, Lady Snowblood fits comfortably in the exploitation genre. It is a film about social change and victimhood as the characters react to incoming Western philosophies and new forms of rule. Like many exploitation films, Lady Snowblood uses violence and graphic content to draw notice to its central theme. Unavoidably, the graphic violence overshadows the theme and the blood-and-guts take over in full force.

The story is told through flashbacks and cutaways, adding a disjointed sense of reality to the plot. Meiko Kaji is the attractive Yuki Kashima, whose entire life is dedicated to retribution after the vicious murder of her father and sadistic rape of her mother. Yuki is born in a woman’s prison to her mother, Sayo (Miyoko Akaza). Sayo dies from childbirth but is able to tell her cellmates that Yuki is to be raised for the purpose of retaliation. Six years later, one of Sayo’s cellmates takes young Yuki to a priest, Dōkai (Kō Nishimura), for training.

After her training, Yuki hits the path of revenge to track down those who wronged her parents. We are shown, graphic novel-style, who Yuki is looking for: Takemura Banzō (Noboru Nakaya), Kitahama Okono (Sanae Nakahara), Shokei Tokuichi (Takeo Chii), and Tsukamoto Gishirō (Eiji Okada). Stripped of emotion, sadness, and anger, Yuki’s quest for vengeance takes hold of her entire life. It is all she is able to do, it is her birthright, it is her divine purpose. As a “child of the netherworld,” she tracks her prey and dispatches of them in magnificent, gruesome fashion as only she can.

Some critics misguidedly dismiss Kaji’s Yuki as a crude walking samurai sword. On the contrary, Meiko Kaji brings depth and multiple dimensions to her role. She remains a stoic, certainly, and is rightly passive in her expressions, but we must remember the culture and time period in which Lady Snowblood takes place. We also must remember the role of women in such a society. Yuki knows what is expected of her as a young woman of her time, but she also knows what her ultimate quest for justice requires of her. Her only expression comes at the conclusion of the picture when she finally allows herself to cry.

While there is indeed texture and substance to the character of Yuki Kashima, the core of Lady Snowblood is the bloodshed. And there is plenty of it. Much of the film features color dynamics of severe, vivid scarlet splashed on untainted white. There is almost always snow on the ground or flakes falling from the sky, which provokes an odd feeling of wholesomeness as counterpoint to Yuki’s violent adventure. Yuki’s wardrobe, too, is pure white and the blood splatters it like war paint.

The blood is a character in and of itself here. It gushes, spurts, pours, and bursts out of wounds. Arms are chopped off, bodies are sliced in half, and torsos are gutted liberally. The blood takes its time in greeting the air, almost always splashing out seconds after the sword breaks the skin. As though through a fire hose, the blood sprays everyone in range until there is nothing left. These extraordinarily ridiculous crimson displays are common in samurai exploitation (chambara), but perhaps no other film demonstrates such artistry with the dazzling red stuff.

Lady Snowblood is the decisive revenge movie. Centered on a character with nothing to live for but fierce, violent retribution, this is an exploitation picture with often-overlooked profundity and great action sequences. For a bloodthirsty good time, find a copy of this tonight.

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