Lady Snowblood Review
As Japanese cinema rolled from the 1960s into the 70s, an increasingly liberated, energetic, creative, and bold film-making community began to emerge. Kinji Fukasaku (perhaps best known to modern viewers for his work directing Battle Royale) was spitting out gloriously chaotic and violent yakuza flicks suck as Battles Without Honour and Humanity (1973), Kenji Misumi created a dazzling crimson-flooded vision of samurai violence with the exhilarating Lone Wolf and Cub films, and Shunya Ito helped to further cement an increasingly impressive career for a young lady called Meiko Kaji, in the film Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41. Subsequently, the seventies proved a period of much vibrancy for the more confrontational aspects of Japanese cinema.
Fast forward a few decades, and an enormously successful American director, known as Quentin Tarantino, would draw heavily on a number of influences when creating his directorial visions, and little more so than the inspiration he gathered from a pair of films featuring the powerful screen presence of the afore-mentioned Meiko Kaji. The films in question are Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld, and its sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance, both directed by the late Toshiya Fujita, and both presenting a stunning representation of filmmaking that is imaginative, creative, thrilling, and without barrier. Indeed, if more of today's film-makers could target the level of creative energy and resourcefulness demonstrated by Fujita in these two films, then the modern film catalog would greatly benefit, and in this perspective, the Lady Snowblood films don't look nearly so dated as they perhaps should.
It doesn't take much of an intuitive leap to figure out why Tarantino was so desperate to bring his own interpretation and imaginings of film-making such as that demonstrated by Fujita to the big screen in the Western world. Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld, and its sequel, Lady Snowblood II: Love Song of Vengeance, unleash an explosive creative force which is almost as powerful and colourful as the generously spurting blood the eponymous heroine liberates from the bodies of her deserving victims. This creative carnival of colour isn't limited to the gloriously stylised violence; Fujita incorporates other visual elements which feel vibrant and refreshing almost four decades later. Perhaps most impressive of these is Fujita's switches to graphic artwork to help drive the plot forward (check out the early depictions of Japan in conflict, or the painted watercolour sky when Snowblood is in the boat); far from disrupting the flow of the narrative, or disturbing the well choreographed combat, this technique serves to heighten the appreciation of a country where honour and conflict abound, a country where Snowblood (or Yuki, to those on more personal terms) must operate to fulfil her grim objective.
And what is the good lady's objective? Rather like Misumi's 'Itto' in the Lone Wolf and Cub series of films - though something of a distaff equivalent - Meiko Kaji's character is a devoted disciple to vengeance, doggedly trained in the art of dispatching unfortunate targets in a gruesomely artistic fashion. Yet whereas Misumi's expert shogun executioner chose the road of vengeance following the slaughter of his wife, Lady Snowblood is born an instrument of vengeance from the womb of her broken, incarcerated mother, a born killer who will exact revenge upon those who have committed the most awful crime against her family. With this chilling framework established, Lady Snowblood could have been an enjoyable though one-dimensional portrayal of an expert female assassin, yet Fujita defines a distinct contour for the unfolding life of the central character. Not only does he demonstrate how Kaji's steely character operates amongst the often unjust and criminal-ravaged fabric of Japanese society in the Meiji era, but he also portrays Snowblood's dormant humanity, and how her latent sensitivity and emotion are gradually awakened.
Whilst not quite as exhilarating and dramatic as the first film, the sequel, Lady Snowblood II: Love Song of Vengeance still delights with a barrage of creativity and a buzzing energy which drives the film forward from the very opening scene. During this sequence, assailants spring up from all angles around our lethal heroine, and as she floats through them with flashing blade, the camera sweeps backwards with remarkable speed and grace, capturing the precise choreography of Snowblood and her attackers. This careful film features many similar examples during the running time, and another stand-out moment arrives as Snowblood and a dissident run from some authority figures, seeking a place to hide. The camera follows the would-be captors for some time, before suddenly panning back and revealing the hiding pair inside a building, as if we, the viewers, had also been tricked by the duo's stealthy retreat into safety.
Where the violence in the sequel may prove a little familiar following the action from the first film, Fujita seeks to compensate by introducing an increased political context, and a more scathing presentation of Japan's political hierarchy in the period. Fujita's police are a rotten and self-serving group, spineless and self-important, and the film highlights a disparity between the moneyed police and the desperately poor working class, with the ruling police looking down on the people with barely concealed distaste, and the people looking back up at the ruling classes with distrust.
Such intriguing portrayals of Japanese society from the depicted period, combined with a wonderful portrayal of a woman born to wreak bloody vengeance, make the Lady Snowblood films essential viewing for a wide range of viewers, whether new to her gliding, deadly blade, or a long term follower of this one-woman killing machine. Fujita's films may have been made in the early to mid-seventies, but they make for as spectacular viewing today as they did upon their release.
Arrow Video release the Lady Snowblood duo on a Blu-ray and DVD combi pack (3 discs), and also in a rather splendid looking (but inevitably pricier) steelbook package. Now, bearing in mind some of the comments I've made regarding Arrow's 'retro' lo-fi cover art in the past, this release muzzles me - temporarily at least - with an appealing presentation which bridges the gap between the tastes of the gore-hungry viewer and the more discerning of underground cinema fans. The cover art leaves one in little doubt of the bloodshed which lies within, yet the image is still composed and designed in such a way as to make this package an object of some desire.
Naturally, cover art alone does not maketh the Blu-ray/DVD combi, and I'm delighted to announce that Arrow have performed a transfer of some pedigree with this refined release, which is, incidentally, the first release of the Lady Snowblood films on Blu-ray. Presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, this remastered presentation of the 1973 and 1974 films is absolutely stunning. The presentation captures the full glory of Fujita's ambitious film, and of Masaki Tamura's breathtaking cinematography, and what proves especially impressive is that the superb accuracy and definition displayed in 1080p resolution does nothing to expose flaws, damage, or dirt from the source material. Such is the quality of the remastering that you can detect little in the way of degradation or noise, and the job done here performs the task of reviving the source material without lending any hint of over-processing or artificiality. The image looks entirely credible, and the film is granted a strange sensation of modernity, despite its relative age.
English subtitles are provided which can be toggled on and off. The subtitles are well positioned and the translations feel credible, although there are a couple of occasions where the phrases used are unintentionally a little amusing.
Arrow have taken the responsibility of releasing Lady Snowblood and its sequel on Blu-ray very seriously, and the viewer is rewarded with an elegant remastered transfer which is little short of stunning.
The original mono audio soundtrack is of similar quality to the visual presentation, and bearing in mind that this is a 1973 film, the aural aspect of this release doesn't disappoint. The clarity is superb throughout, and the levels are kept within controlled parameters, whilst still allowing the source material to breathe. Masaaki Hirao's musical accompaniment is especially exhilarating here, with the contrasting styles of the oriental and Western musical segments working surprisingly well, and I didn't detect any distracting hiss or distortion. Listen out for the film's theme song, which is sung by none other than Meiko 'Snowblood' Kaji, and also featured in Tarantino's first Kill Bill volume.
Arrow have provided a mere sprinkling of extras here. Slicing Through the Snow – An exclusive interview with Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp is a tidy and straightforward 11 minute interview with Jasper Sharp, and features Sharp discussing the film in the context of Japanese cinema of the period, and also highlighting the influence and impact it had on Tarantino and his Kill Bill films. Sharp provides an illuminating and absorbing analysis of Japanese cinema despite the relatively modest running time.
Further expertise surrounding Japanese cinema is provided by the respected writer Tom Mes in the included collectors' booklet, which benefits from original stills from the films. I haven't seen the booklet to comment further, but if the rest of this presentation is anything to judge it by, it should prove something to be treasured.
The modest set of extras is rounded up by a couple of trailers representing the main film presentations on the disc.
Tarantino's Kill Bill stories paid an enormously respectful nod to Toshiya Fujita's Lady Snowblood films, and Arrow follow suit with a graceful and absorbing representation of Fujita's groundbreaking carnival of female-fronted vengeance. Remastered flawlessly for this virgin Blu-ray release of the Snowblood duo, I can't see how - apart from, perhaps, upping the slightly light extras quotient - this package could have been elevated much higher. Arrow deserve much credit for their release of Fujita's exhilarating tale of distaff vengeance, and as such this comes highly recommended.