The Lady Snowblood series are said to have been a great influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series. Influence might be a bit weak of a word, as Kill Bill: Vol. 1 almost exclusively took all of its ideas from Toshiya Fujita’s film. Homage is one thing, but wow, Quentin, pump the breaks a bit.
Lady Snowblood is an woman born in a prison and then raised and trained from birth to live as a cold-blooded assassin, bent only on seeking revenge for her dead parents. The story begins during a time of civil war in which the nation of Japan is instating a mandatory draft. A group of bandits decide this is a perfect opportunity for gain and travel around telling farmers that for a small fee their sons’ names will be removed from the drafting list. Meanwhile, the future mother and father of Lady Snowblood are moving into a small village to start an elementary school, along with their young son. The bandits mistake the husband for a government worker and kill him. They also kill the son and then take the wife captive.
Eventually she ends up in prison and there gives birth to a daughter: Yuki, aka, Lady Snowblood. The child, being innocent, is sent away to live under the tutelage of a kendo (Japanese sword-fighting) master and eventually become an assassin hell-bent on seeking revenge for her mother. That’s the set up. From there on out it’s just blood, guts, and mayhem.
The photography is mostly stunning, although some sequences were clearly shot with a hand-held camera (possibly foreshadowing the hand-held, action movie craze from a few years ago) which somewhat hurts the visual power of the film. Yet the movie is stunningly beautiful in regards to its lighting, color palette, choreography, and simplicity. At its heart Lady Snowblood is little more than a typical 1970s revenge film, and yet under the surface there seems to be much more going on. For instance, after one character dies during a fight, he falls from a balcony clutching a bloodied Japanese flag in his hand. Images like this lead one to wonder regarding the political motivations behind such a film. I am not, however, aware enough of the film’s context in the Japanese culture at the time to derive any solid conclusions.
The action sequences at times feel like dance, calling back to the “chambara” movies of old, but with a distinct modern flair and style. The sword fights are always exciting, and bodies always produce more blood than they could possibly contain. As I said before, Tarantino clearly watched this movie a few dozen times when writing/making the Kill Bill movies.
Taratino’s questionable “borrowing” from the film aside, however, it is important that Lady Snowblood not become known as “that movie which inspired Kill Bill” as this is clearly the stronger and more stirring film. The titular character, while less empathetic than the woman from Kill Bill, is far more haunting a heroine (if she can be called a heroine at all) and leaves a much greater impact on the viewer. All the way from the startling visuals to the loose-playing narrative, Lady Snowblood is an impeccable piece of filmmaking.