Lady Snowblood: Blizzard From The Netherworld Review
Lady Snowblood: Blizzard From The Netherworld from Toho Productions, made in 1973, is the first of two films starring Meiko Kaji in the title role, with the sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song Of Vengeance, made one year later, in 1974. They are little known examples of the samurai genre, with a woman being the focus of vengeance, driven from one generation to the next, this time with a woman avenging the death of not only her mother, but also her father and brother.
Lady Snowblood opens in 1874 on a snowy winter's night where Sayo, who has been jailed for murder, is in labour. Sayo's husband had been the victim of gangsters during the Ketsuzei Riots, one year before - a time of great lawlessness where rumours abounded about the "Men In White", said to be the pawns of the government who killed conscripts and collected their blood for sale to foreign nations. These four gangsters, three men and one woman - Tsukamoto Gishiro, Takemura Banzo, Shokei Tokuichi and Kitahama Okono, respectively - lived in, and exploited the workers of, Koichi Village, by persuading them to pay 270 yen, thereby ensuring they would not be conscripted into the army.
Of course, this was all a fraud but in order to strengthen their position, and increase the fear of the villagers, they accuse and murder Sayo's husband, just arrived in Koichi Village to work as the new schoolteacher and mistakenly wearing white. Sayo and her son watched as he was accused of being a government agent and, immediately following this, was hacked to death. Sayo was captured, tortured and raped by Tsukamoto, Takemura and Shokei, all of which is watched by Kitahama. Soon after, conscriptions start and the gangsters disappear, Shokei taking Sayo with him to Tokyo, where she awaits her moment, killing him in bed.
It is then that Sayo is imprisoned and in every prison in which she was incarcerated, before finally being moved into a women's jail, she had sex with and seduced as many of the male prisoners and wardens as she could, all the time hoping to conceive a male child, born of vengeance. Sayo, however gives birth to a girl, Kashima Yuki (Meiko Kaji), who, regardless of her sex, will be required to avenge her mother. Yuki is to be known as Lady Snowblood for, as the film states, she who cleanses this world of decay is not pure white snow but snow that is fiery red - the snow of the netherworlds.
Yuki trains over the next twenty years to avenge her mother's death and, at this point, the flashbacks cease, linking back to the story seen at the very beginning, resuming her search for the remaining three gangsters. Of course, with such a long time having passed, they will be difficult to find but Yuki is renowned as an assassin and finds favour amongst those who she has assisted in the past. She is thus aided in her quest and quickly tracks down the first of her intended victims and, from that point on, the film moves quickly forward.
It is, however, not a predictable revenge drama. It is not that Yuki is not capable but that the reality of vengeance is not as simple as the thoughts that drive it. Between the act that inspires Yuki's actions and the time taken for her birth, training and the tracking of those she will kill, the world she is living in has become ever more complicated and Lady Snowblood, while not examining it, does at least confront it. There was little traditional honour left in Japan in the late 1800's and European and American decadence, indicated here by a masked ball organised by one thought to have died during a smuggling trip to North America was creeping in. Yuki's mission is made difficult by her victim's inability to fight and die honourably, as she had imagined they would and she is visibly frustrated at this. Indeed, little happens as planned, which makes the film more interesting than it would otherwise have been.
Lady Snowblood is an interesting film in that it mixes traditional storytelling with an eye on the exploitation market, with each slice of a blade resulting in a vivid fountain of blood, visible in close up as the blade is twisted further in or as a stump, with the missing limb now lying on the ground. For the period in which it was made, this is perfectly acceptable - samurai films were attempting to modernise with lashings of gore, with the screen coloured by excesses of red blood. The musical updates are less satisfactory as, while it is predominantly accompanied by traditional instrumentation, there are some passages set to heavy funk, typical of urban cop thrillers of the time but really out of place in a samurai film set at the end of the 19th century.
Lady Snowblood is not particularly well transferred but my view is that, dependent on the film under discussion, having it on DVD at all can be more important that waiting for a pristine transfer to be made available, particularly when one may never be made so. I would put Lady Snowblood in this category as it's not well known and, therefore, those collectors or fans of the samurai epic, specifically interested in those films at the more violent and explicit end of the genre, may find the lack of an anamorphic transfer irrelevant. Certainly, I did not find myself wishing for a better transfer than that presented here when watching the film, which probably says more about the manner in which samurai films have been presented in Europe over the years than the actual state of the original prints.
There are numerous examples of graininess in the print, there is warping on approximately the leftmost quarter of the picture such that figures there appear thinner than elsewhere and there is occasional blurring on the transfer where there is motion.
The picture is presented in 2.2:1 with subtitles beyond that aspect ration at both the top and bottom of the picture.
The film is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, which is fine given the age of the film. The soundtrack is clean of noise and hiss and is also evocative, with ambient sounds very well captured against harsher dialogue and action.
An English soundtrack is not available and the subtitles, though always on, are excellent, placed at the bottom of the screen and making use of multiple colours to designate which characters are speaking. At the top of the screen are notes, offering some background information on places and events used as a backdrop for the setting of the film. For example, early in the film, mention is made in the main story of the "Ketsuzei Riots" that occurred in the 6th year of Meiji. The upper subtitles explain that the Ketsuzei (Blood Tax) Riots were caused by wild rumours about the treatment of conscripts. This does not happen that often and so is never intrusive, but is a distinct attempt to explain the background to the story.
Previews: Trailers are available here for:
- Red Lion (2.2:1, 2m2s)
- Ambush At Blood Pass (2.2:1, 1m47s)
- Zatoichi The Outlaw (2.2:1, 1m32s)
- Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1.33:1, 2m28s)
- Samurai II: Duel At Ichijoji Temple (1.33:1, 1m50s) and
- Samurai III: Duel At Ganryu Island (1.33:1, 1m35s)
The Samurai trilogy trailers are of the poorest quality but this has much to do with the original print. All films are available from Artsmagic in the UK and Ireland.
Stills: Ten images are presented from the film, all of which are oddly selected as they are neither the most startling imagery available nor are they of the highest quality.
Director - Profile of Fujita Toshiya: Two still screens with a small amount of text detailing his life and filmography.
Profile of Kaji Meiko: Two still screens regarding the star of Lady Snowblood and the films in which she appeared.
Artwork Stills: Six DVD cover prints are available onscreen for the Lone Wolf And Cub, or Babycart, series of films.
Promotion: One screen of heavily red-tinted screens from the film as well as the cover art.
The Russo-Japanese War: This section tries to present some historical data for the period in which Lady Snowblood was set. There are two screens of text detailing the background to the war, one screen of stills showing the ships involved in the conflict and one screen of a newspaper cartoon showing a Russian bear challenging Japan.
I really enjoyed this film. I'm completely new to this genre and those of you who are experts can feel free to add to this review by commenting below should I have missed anything out but in terms of simply making the most of what is available, both the filmmakers and the DVD distributor have a done a good job.
The film itself is great fun and, without any prior knowledge over which elements of it to take seriously, or not, I found myself just sitting back and enjoying the humour, the action sequences and the characterisation, as well as the basic story. There is enough subtleties in the film such that it is well paced, allowing for moments of silence between the swordplay and it is occasionally beautiful to look at. The use of a female heroine is also significant, allowing a clear differentiation between this and other samurai films.
Lady Snowblood: Blizzard From The Netherworld is certainly worth watching - absolutely worth it if you're a fan of the genre - but even as a casual viewer, it's great. I don't know how often you'll return to it, but it is certainly worth more than one spin in the player.
Lady Snowblood and its sequel are part of the Warrior label from Artsmagic Ltd. You can discover more about this and other releases on the Warrior label from the official Artsmagic website where you can also purchase their titles direct.