For many westerners, Asian action movies are limited to the exploits of Jackie Chan and, if you were a child during the 1970s, a healthy diet of Saturday Morning Kung Fu Theater. However, what such a limited cinematic horizon may preclude you from seeing is the range of works that appeared during the early 1970s that set a radically new aesthetic agenda, which included anti-heroes, social outcasts, and subversive storylines. Unique among these works is Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 revenge film Lady Snowblood.
Released in the aftermath of Kenji Misumi’s 1972 Lone Wolf and Cub and at a time when Bruce Lee had become a global phenomenon—Enter the Dragon also appeared on screens in 1973—Lady Snowblood was a gendered and eloquent response to a male-dominated world of sexual exploitation and violence. In a sense, “Yuki Kashima, aka Lady Snowblood” (Meiko Kaji) is a female counterpart to Toshiro Mifune’s “Yojimbo,” a ronin and social misfit, whose sense of justice in a degenerate and unjust world led him through two spectacular films, Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). As a female avenger, Lady Snowblood is also the counterpart to Pam Grier’s “Coffy,” a vigilante character introduced in 1973 in the eponymous Jack Hill movie.
Like its peers, Lady Snowblood gives life to a unique character cast into extraordinary circumstances, replete with an unforgettable visual manifestation in which Meiji Era Japan becomes the backdrop for a balletic display of righteous violence. In its essence, Lady Snowblood is a classic revenge tale. Before she was even born, Yuki’s mother Sayo was sexually assaulted by four malicious con-artists, who had swindled several poor and uneducated villagers out of their meager savings. The four crooks, three men and a woman, then encounter Sayo and her husband on a road into the village. Her husband is the new school teacher, who the crooks accuse of being a corrupt official as an excuse to attack and kill him. Sayo is then held against her wishes by one of her dead husband’s assailants, whom she eventually murders. Consequently, she is sent to prison in spite of having been kidnapped and forced into what was little more than a life of sexual slavery.
Because of the egregiousness with which she has been treated by her tormentors, Sayo vows her revenge, which she pursues by seducing every male prison guard she can get her hands on. She does this in hopes of getting pregnant and birthing a son who will avenge her. Instead, she has a baby girl she names Yuki for the snow that is falling on the night of birth. More important, Sayo anoints her daughter as an “asura,” which is described in the movie as a “demon,” a being defined by an attraction to the baser of human passions, which means an unhappy life for Yuki, yet necessary for a life devoted to killing.
Upon completing her training for assassination under the tutelage of “Priest Dokai” (Ko Nishimura), which began in childhood, Yuki sets on her path of revenge. Yuki’s saga is divided into four chapters, which are highlighted by her encounters with her three living nemeses. What ensues is a remarkable journey of daughterly devotion, the loneliness of the Asura way, and the law of Karma, which can wreak bloody upheaval. Profound without being preachy, Fujita doesn’t want to teach his audience anything, but rather let Yuki’s story speak for itself. Yuki never questions her objectives. Her mother’s rape and suffering, not to mention the life that that created her daughter, leaves an indisputable sense of rightness of purpose in Yuki’s heart.
In the end, Lady Snowblood is one of these films, when you see it long after its original release, evokes a sense of amazement that such people, places, and stories existed. Masaki Tamura’s cinematography is impeccable, in which every frame is a work of art. Unsurprisingly, Lady Snowblood was one of Quentin Tarantino’s inspirations for Kill Bill, parts 1 and 2. For aficionados of Japanese art and culture, though, “Yuki Kashima” will easily be seen as a precursor to subsequent generations of katana-wielding heroines, who are often social outcasts in their right, not to mention young, and misunderstood harbingers of cosmic justice.