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Schlock & Awe: LADY SNOWBLOOD

Schlock & Awe: LADY SNOWBLOOD

Quentin Tarantino likes to put his influences front and center in his movies. He reverently cribs from the best in the genre cinema he grew up watching, and has even named two of his movies after Italian flicks — Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.

It’s fun when you actually get to see the movies that Tarantino takes from, and obviously the Kill Bill movies are rife with Shaw Brothers Kung Fu trappings and spaghetti western motifs. But easily the biggest direct influence is the 1973 Japanese revenge classic, Lady Snowblood.

Based on the manga by the inimitable Kazuo Koike (who also created the manga Lone Wolf and Cub which spawned five films, and the American recut Shogun Assassin), Lady Snowblood is the incredibly gory take on a woman who is quite literally the living embodiment of vengeance, training for years to become the perfect implement of swift violence in order to take down the four people who ruined her family’s lives. Sound a little familiar? It definitely should.

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The titular Snowblood is played by Meiko Kaji, once of the hands-down coolest actresses ever to grace the screen. She is known for playing touch, outsider characters in movies like Stray Cat Rock, and the awesomely-titled series Female Convict 701: Scorpion. She is also an accomplished singer, often singing the title tracks in her movies. For example, she sang “Flower of Carnage” from this movie — used in Kill Bill vol. 1 — and “Urami Bushi,” from Female Convict and featured in Kill Bill vol. 2.

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The story takes place between 1873 and 1894-ish, depicting the horrible carnage that befell the Kashima family at the hands of four bandits. They brutally kill Mr. Kashima and their young son, for seemingly no reason other than to try to convince the village the government was out to get them all (yes, really). Kashima’s wife, Sayo (Miyoko Akaza), is held captive, beaten, tortured, and raped. She is eventually taken as the forced “employee” of one of the bandits when they all go their separate ways, but Sayo stabs him to death and is arrested and sent to prison.

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But vengeance can’t be quelled by one out of four, right? So, in prison, Sayo has sex with as many guards as she can until she gets pregnant and, as she lies dying after childbirth, she beseeches a soon-to-be-released fellow prisoner to take her daughter (named Yuki, “Snow”) somewhere to continue the quest for restitution. As Yuki gets older, she is taken to a priest named Dōkai (Kō Nishimura) who trains her in the art of death, turning the young girl into a hardened weapon. Yuki uses her facade as a helpless and delicate woman to her advantage, exacting vengeance with a sharp small sword hidden in her umbrella handle.

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The above is told out of order and throughout the film, but it establishes why Yuki feels an unending, unyielding, bloodborn need to fulfill her family’s vendetta against the bandits. She needs to do this; she literally knows nothing else. Much of the film is episodic as she hunts down each of the remaining three culprits, along the way meeting a newspaper reporter who begins chronicling her exploits in an attempt to draw out the foes. Nothing about the intervening 20 years since her birth could possibly make her change her mind, and at one point, one of the bandits has hanged herself. Yuki hears a faint heartbeat and so quickly cuts the hanging fiend in half, ensuring it was she who ended the villain’s life.

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There are a ton of visuals in the film that were used in Kill Bill (along with the premise) — a wide shot of all four of the bad guys, from the point of view of Sayo, is directly lifted for a shot of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad from the Bride’s point of view, and the showdown between the Bride and O-ren Ishii at the end of KB1 looks visually similar to several scenes in Lady Snowblood. It’s really no wonder Tarantino chose specific shots to replicate; the direction by Toshiya Fujita is masterful throughout and makes a mountain out of the low-budget molehill he was given.

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Lady Snowblood is a deliriously twisted and violent revenge film with a steely central performance by Kaji and plenty of action, gore, and memorably hateful characters. It’s a movie I’m ashamed I hadn’t seen until recently because it is integral to the genre. An admittedly lesser sequel (Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance) came out in 1974, and is included along with the original in a recent Criterion disc, and they make for an excellent weekend viewing.

Who doesn’t love a little revenge with their morning tea?

Images: Toho

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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