Review: Lady Snowblood (1973)

Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 film adaptation of the manga by Kazuo Koike is a real treat, but looking back on it now I can see how old school it must have seemed in the early seventies.  Much like Hammer’s horror films, these sorts of pictures were becoming less and less relevant.  And just like Hammer’s films, this 1973 production looks remarkably similar to the Zatoichi films that were made a decade before this one.  Strange how quickly film technique and technology advanced during the early sixties, only to stagnate until George Lucas forced the issue in 1977.

While there are plenty of interesting visual ideas here, very few of them are presented well.  The camera work is absolutely clumsy.  Much of the film is shot using extreme wide angle lenses (I think – I’m no lens expert) that make pans looks positively psychedelic and characters at the edges of the screen look stretched.  I’m sure that Fujita wanted widescreen, but this is no way to go about it.  Oh, and speaking of psychedelic, there are a few weird, hippie, music cues that are hilarious.  thank the kami these aren’t present throughout or they would have ruined the film completely.

It sounds like I hated it, huh?  Well, I didn’t.  In fact, I like Lady Snowblood quite a lot.  For those who’ve never heard of it, the plot is pretty basic.  A woman who’s been wronged on just about every level dies right after childbirth.  The child is raised with one mission – to exact revenge for the wrongs done to her mother.  She is trained by a Shinto priest (who’s hilariously referred to as the reverend in the subtitles) to be an efficient killer, then she sets out to get the job done by any means necessary.  Sound familiar?  It should.  It’s the movie Kill Bill was based on.  This isn’t as uber-produced as Kill Bill, but as revenge pictures go, it’s pretty good.  There were obviously ambitions at work here that the budget couldn’t live up to, but the scenes in the snow really stand out.  The visual motif of falling snow works wonderfully well and really wasn’t improved upon in the O-ren Ishii segment in Kill Bill.  Many have speculated that Tanrantino’s O-ren IS Yuki, but I think it’s obvious that Yuki’s traits are evenly distributed between O-ren and the Bride in that version of the story, and make no mistake – it’s the exact same story, just finessed a little bit.

Much like O-ren’s back story, there are segments in Lady Snowblood that were just too hideously expensive to produce, so they’re presented in pseudo-storyboards and manga-style frames.  While this does get the story points across, it’s an enormous Fail for this picture.  If ever there were a movie that could stand a straight up reboot, it’s this one.  Maybe Takeshi Kitano will remake it and play Yuki himself.  For better or worse, I wouldn’t put it past him.

The performances here are all top notch, with some wonderful stunt work from the lovely Meiko Kaji as the title character (AKA-Yuki).  She fights most often with a shikome-zui (single-edged cane sword) that is very similar to that of Zatoichi except for the fact that hers is hidden inside the handle of her paper parasol.  Her fighting style is very similar to Zatoichi’s as well, which presses the question – was the character of Yuki essentially a female copy of Zatoichi or was it simply necessary for them to have similar swords since both had to keep their swords hidden at all times?

The disc is by AnimEigo and the transfer is okay.  Nothing to write home about but nothing much to complain about either.  The audio is the original monaural and it’s presented as well as can be expected for such material.  Basically, the presentation didn’t wow me, but it didn’t get in the way either.  There are no extras on the disc unless you count the handful of trailers.  While I’m glad that someone stepped up and released this film (and its sequel), I wish that that someone had been Criterion.  Maybe the source material isn’t up to their artistic standards.  Whatever.  I’m happy to be able to see these films at all.  Recommended.

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