Before Toho Co. got a hold of it, the story of Lady Snowblood– the title itself a play on the Japanese wording for “Princess Snow White”—was a manga, serialized in Weekly Playboy (not associated with the American Playboy) from 1972-1973. Written by Kazuo Koike with stunning illustrations by Kazuo Kamimura, the tale of a woman assassin avenging her family’s injustices has enjoyed multiple republications over the years, including an English-language translation in 2005 by Dark Horse Comics. Notably, its original publisher Shueisha targets Weekly Playboy towards an adult male demographic, so it’s good to go in knowing what kind of music will be playing; this is not a feminist masterpiece, but it is an action masterpiece with lofty transitory themes.
Hot on the heels of her Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Meiko Kaji took on the role of Yuki in Lady Snowblood. Her characters in both film series were indeed angels of death, but hold key differences, the most important of which is this: where Matsu the Scorpion sought to right the wrongs committed against her personally, Yuki the Asura (a demon of lore) was assigned her vendetta by her dying mother, on behalf of their slain family. It was a curse she lamented but understood, later admitting, “Even before we enter the world, we are marked by karma.”
As with so many tales of intergenerational trauma, Yuki’s tale begins with her parents. Lady Snowblood is divided into chapters, and “Chapter One: Vow of Vengeance” paints the picture and connects love to hatred with blood. Using a non-linear style of storytelling, screenwriter Norio Osada and director Toshiya Fujita swing back and forth between Sayo’s attempts to execute those who have wronged her clan, and what her clan went through. Narration exposits the climate of 1870s Japan, where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and a new government threatens to conscript males from already-strained households. Among the strife, Sayo Kajima (Miyoko Akaza), her husband Tora, and their son Shiro take a walk in Koichi Village. There, a quartet of criminals attacks the family, accusing Tora of being a conscription officer of the new government due to his all-white outfit (he was not, in fact, a conscription officer at all, but an elementary school teacher). The men brutally kill Tora and rape Sayo in a nearby barn, while the lone female thug of the group murders young Shiro.
Those killers are the same names on Sayo’s kill list, bearing a heavy resemblance to the motifs and structure of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films (his homage to Lady Snowblood is an entirely different deep dive to be written separately, but suffice it to say that both are fantastic for similar and differing reasons).
One of the rapists, Shokei Tokuichi (Takeo Shii, Kaji’s prior costar in Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo) takes a predatory liking to Sayo and coerces her to accompany him on his travels. When the opportunity presents itself, Sayo gives him his comeuppance, stabbing him to death and earning herself a lifelong prison sentence. Therein, Sayo proceeded to seduce every guard in the facility to purposely conceive not a replacement baby, but a revenge baby. Naming the child Yuki after the gentle snowfall outside, Sayo imparts her only living words to the child as it wails into the damp darkness, “Snow… you will carry on my vendetta.” The very first sounds presented in Lady Snowblood are the newborn Yuki’s cries in the dank space, layered with grim handheld pans of women prisoners behind the grimy gray jaws of its cell bars. Outside, a flurried tempest howls, and the emotional oppression of the scene looms ever larger. Inside, Sayo and a writhing Yuki, both shot in profile, one leaving life and one entering. The film cyclically enters a transitional balance like this one and situates birth and death as a two-way passage of life; a miracle of childbirth, but it is in a prison, in a cold, cold storm, and mother dies. A target is slain and tossed into the sea, and as the waters around his body blossoms red, he is cleansed, atoned.
Shortly after birth, the baby is passed to a caretaker and raised as an assassin from birth under the tutelage of Dōkai (Kō Nishimura), a priest. Yuki’s training is intense— her master rolls her downhill in barrels and regularly draws his sword near her to keep her frosty, and on the mental side, he encourages her to forget her sadness and focus on vengeance, for “even the Buddha has forsaken you.” He is not only aware of Sayo’s deathbed oath, he reminds the girl that she was not born human but as “…an asura, giving your life to avenge death.” Despite the militant dehumanization, Yuki remains sentimental to her mother’s memory. Kaji, in turn, does not mimic her cold, calculating performance in Female Prisoner Scorpion entries, though she is a killer in both. Instead, where the Scorpion operates from a place of rage and rarely allows sentimentality to emerge, Kaji’s Lady keeps tenderness due north across her entire performance.
Early in the film, Yuki solicits the help of Matsuemon (Hitoshi Takagi), the leader of a gang of loinclothed hoodlums. Like Varys on a game about thrones, Matsuemon’s little birdies are everywhere, and she needs his intel to find the rest of the names on her cursed kill list. As she’s asking for his help, Kaji’s voice hits a higher pitch of desperation, one in sharp contrast to the cold, flat delivery she’d later serve along with a death blow, “I am the daughter of a woman who died in prison cursing your name.” Later, a chance meeting would bring her face-to-face with the daughter of one of Yuki’s targets. As the assassin realizes who she’s addressing, her welcoming glow darkens, as if closing a curtain on herself. Her body language goes from friendly to minimal and closed-off, and she stops blinking entirely. For real, watch the movie and count how often she blinks when she’s in executioner mode. There are many reasons why Meiko Kaji is a demigoddess of cult cinema, and that fiery, unblinking gaze is one of them.
On a technical level, this is a film of contrasts: few things are as aesthetically gorgeous and unsettling as blood spatter across lily-white snow, or agonal screams slicing through the night with little echo under the cover of snowfall. Fujita is patient enough to let the audience listen not just to the slice of her blade, but to the crunch of her footwear in the precipitation as well. The frame is generally patient, even in assassination scenes, settling an air of stillness about her hunt. On a thematic level, there is a through-line of cyclical, even co-centric violence. Just after Yuki bemoans to Matsuemon, “Even before we enter the world, we are marked by karma,” another narration slides in to set the scene around the elimination of her family: poverty, a draft, peasant revolt, riots, deaths, paranoia, chaos. Amid that, Sayo and her loved ones took a fateful walk in the park. It’s amid filth and confinement that Yuki was born, and it’s on the blood oath of her slain family that she is weaned. She is retribution incarnate, but it was bequeathed by her parents and the world around her.
“Her name is Snowblood, child of vengeance.”