Lady Snowblood (Japan, 1973), directed by Fujita Toshiya and starring Kaji Meiko, is best known to American audiences as a major inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. But the samurai revenge thriller, adapted from the manga by Koike Kazuo (who also created Lone Wolf and Cub) and Kamimura Kazama, was a cult favorite long before Tarantino came along.
Born of a wronged woman who dies giving birth in prison, the beautiful and deadly Shirayuki (Meiko) is raised by a thief and trained in the martial arts by a priest to exact her revenge on the quartet of criminals who murdered her father and tortured her mother. Clad in a demure kimono and armed with a sword hidden in her parasol, she turns from proper lady to the fiery Lady Snowblood in the flick of an eye.
The film’s comic book origins can be seen in the intermittent use of penciled panels to tell the story, in the vivid chapter titles (like “Crying Bamboo Dolls of the Netherworlds” and “Umbrella of Blood, Heart of Strewn Flowers”) that mark her progress, and in the slash cutting the takes the film rapidly back and forth in time. Yet it’s a thoroughly cinematic experience, full of color and movement strewn across the widescreen frame and highlighted by efficiently choreographed battles.
Toshiya and screenwriter/producer Norio Osada use a remarkable array of ideas and techniques in his storytelling. The story slips back and forth in time and flashbacks are nestled in flashbacks. Scenes are composed like serene paintings with delicate, soft colors in one shot and panels from a comic book, with sprays of spurting blood as explosions of crimson and objects reduced to stark graphic images, in another. Like the films of Seijun Suzuki a decade before, Lady Snowblood is a pulp revenge melodrama directed as an avant-garde thriller.
Both director and star reunited for Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), the one and only sequel to the hit film.
And of course it was the primary inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films: the wronged woman taking violent revenge with a sword, the complex flashbacks, and especially the imagery of the climactic showdown in the falling snow of a Lucy Liu’s courtyard. He even takes the theme song, “The Flower of Carnage,” sung by Meiko Kaji herself, as his own heroine’s theme. His tribute—and his outspoken love of the film—cast a spotlight on the film decades after its completion and inspired fans to seek it out and gave the film new life in the U.S.
Rated R, in Japanese with English subtitles
Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Complete Lady Snowblood (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
The Complete Lady Snowblood (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
Lady Snowblood (AnimEgo) [DVD]
The Criterion Collection special edition features both Lady Snowblood and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance as a double feature (two discs on DVD, one on Blu-ray) with interviews with manga author Koike Kazuo and screenwriter Norio Osada. The insert folds out to a poster on one side and an essay by Howard Hampton on the other (along with notes on the film and the disc production.