Umbrella sword in hand, the titular Lady Snowblood carves a bloody path to blu-ray at last. Masterfully reproduced in all it’s gloriously vibrant violence, Lady Snowblood and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance serve as wonderfully entertaining, timeless, and influential stories of fate, lineage, strife, revenge, exploitation, and ultra-violent retribution. Heavily inspiring Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga, Lady Snowblood is a bountiful well of beautiful cinematography, masterful storytelling, and powerful music. Even the theme song, sung by Lady Snowblood herself (Meiko Kaji), is done with such succinct self-awareness and grandiosity that it’s difficult to understand why Lady Snowblood was never propelled into a full-fledged film series similar to Zatoichi.
The beginning of the film opens to a women’s prison in which one of the inmates is giving birth. Snow is falling outside as fellow inmates, all dressed in fantastically vibrant red, assist the mother-to-be. It’s quickly established that the mother will not survive the ordeal, but she is determined to deliver. With steely conviction she finally gives birth to a baby girl, Yuki (Meaning Snow in Japanese). The mother, with her last breaths, burdens Yuki with what will be her life’s mission. Yuki must go forth and seek vengeance on the people whom destroyed her mother’s life. From that point forward, Yuki is marked as an asura, a divine and demonic agent of vengeance.
The film does a great job in shrouding Lady Snowblood’s origin and motivations in mystery. Even her name Snowblood(Shurayuki-hime), a play on Snow White(Shirayuki-hime), fits more like an assassin’s handle than a proper name. Extraordinarily skilled in combat, she strikes down many of her enemies in a poetically brief and deft fashion. The audience is captivated by her beauty and powerful gaze and enraptured in how such a beautiful instrument of death could come to fruition. Yuki’s identity is so reliant on this stoic persona of revenge that it becomes incredibly satisfying to watch the cracks begin to break her icy exterior and send her into a volcanic and impassioned crescendo.
Meiko Kaji truly shines in her performance of Lady Snowblood. Every close-up perfectly captures her powerful and hypnotic presence. Her stare filled with all the venom and conviction of a viper ready to strike. Meiko’s eyes are weapons for which there are no equal, peering into the very depths of her victims’ souls and weighing their worth. Meiko injects so much visceral realism into her hyper-vigilant character that it only becomes even more captivating to behold her final incredibly sobering scenes.
Following a nonlinear structure, Lady Snowblood is divided into four chapters. Each one given an overtly provocative title. The film does a superb job of bouncing back and forth between tightly knit flashbacks (even flashbacks within flashbacks) and the present, keeping a fanatic pace that holds the audience enthralled until the bloody finale.
There are so many rich themes here that it’s easy to see what piqued Tarantino’s interest so much. The film could be approached and watched from so many different perspectives. Lending such a fresh and interesting take on the inheritance of female agency, western cultural indoctrination, and political exploitation it easily ascends from stereotypical action movie fair and canonizes itself as a masterwork of Japanese cinema.
Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance
Abandoning all but the sparsest themes of the first film, Love Song of Vengeance is a strange and deeply political journey for the Lady Snowblood franchise. Focusing on Japan’s imperialistic conversion following the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, Love Song of Vengeance finds Lady Snowblood entangled in a political conspiracy and is called into action to aid an anarchist and his plot to undermine the newly established Meiji government.
Luckily for the uninitiated, the film goes through pains to explain this very specific period in Japan’s history and its cultural and personal significance to the characters involved. Unlike the previous film, most of the plot is established very early in the film with the rest of the run time playing things out to their logical end. There’s no great reveals, personal insight, or character development going on here (despite a sub-plot love triangle).
Captured and scheduled for execution, Lady Snowblood is freed by none other than the secret service. Propositioned to ascertain important documents from a known anarchist, Ransui Tokunaga (Jûzô Itami), Lady Snowblood quickly infiltrates the home of her quarry under the pretense of being a maid. As it would happen, Lady Snowblood quickly sympathizes with Ransui and instead decides to aid his cause. Ransui is soon captured by authorities and Snowblood escapes with the all important documents in hand. Injured, Lady Snowblood finds refuge with Ransui’s younger brother Shusuke Tokunaga (Yoshio Harada) who runs a clinic in the slums. The story evolves fairly predictably from there.
Although a decent film in its own right, Love Song of Vengeance is still disappointing when juxtaposed to the original. Especially given how much more content was left unexplored from the previous installment. Ultimately, the end result feels rushed and imperfect as a result.
Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Clarity Detail: Every detail is brilliantly captured in painstaking detail. Criterion delivers again.
Depth: A few great shots the coast and a handful of nice open vistas. Most of the shots in these films focus on contained city scenes or interior shots.
Black Levels: Wonderfully rich blacks are perfectly preserved ave a strong impact when used.
Color Reproduction: Both films feature some incredibly vibrant reds, which have been restored with great fidelity. The first film seems to suffer when it comes to capturing brighter greens. This issue is absent in the second film.
Flesh Tones: Flesh looks rich and complex like it should. Given the age of the film you will notice make-up when you probably shouldn’t. Even so, much of the special effects make-up still hold up under HD scrutiny.
Noise/Artifacts: None noticeable on a first viewing.
Audio Format: DTS-HD Mono
Subtitles: English (Newly translated for better clarity)
Dynamics: Given that it’s a mono audio track there’s not a lot that can be done here. The tracks are manually tooled to remove any glaring audio artifacts like hissing, humming, crackling, etc that you would otherwise expect with a film of this age. Given the source the audio is as polished as it could be. What earns this release an above average score is the keen preservation of the musical score.
Low Frequency Extension: Utilized as much as you’d expect for a movie from the 70’s. Notably only during the various montages and music heavy scenes. Don’t expect the bass to really be thumping for this post-feudal drama.
Surround Sound Presentation: N/A
Dialogue Reproduction: All dialogue is excellently preserved and clear.
Interview: Kozuo Koike – Writer of the Lady Snowblood manga explains his creative process and what decisions lead to the inception of Shuriyuki-hime. Provides a lot of insight into who is Lady Snowblood and how she fits contextually into the environment of post-feudal Japan.
Interview: Norio Osada – Screenwriter of Lady Snowblood and Love Song of Vengeance. Norio discusses the process of adapting the manga for film and working with director Toshiya Fujita. Also helps shine light onto how Love Song of Vengeance became the flawed work it is today, but in an admirably unapologetic way.
Flowers of Carnage – Essay by critic Howard Hampton – Great companion piece drawing comparisons to Tarantino’s Kill Bill, exploring the cultral signifcance of Lady Snowblood herself, delving into the weirdness of Love Song of Vengeance, and lamenting the stunted career of Meiko Kaji. The reverse side is a wonderful graphic poster which may leave some enthusiasts torn on how best to showcase both the essay and the artwork.
A powerful and compelling tragedy Lady Snowblood certainly stands the test of time. The Criterion Collection brings this classic to the digital HD arena and revitalizes its lurid display of retribution in glorious spectacle. Whether a discerning connoisseur of fine Japanese cinema, an insatiable otaku, or huge fan of Quentin Tarantino, this collection should find its home comfortably on many a shelf. Particularly if you were a fan of the Kill Bill Saga this small collection is an absolute must have and will leave many the QT fan awe struck in how much homage was paid to the original, right down to Lady Snowblood’s theme song “The Flowers of Carnage”. With all this to consider and even taking into account the flawed nature of the sequel The Complete Lady Snowblood is a welcome addition to The Criterion Collection and well worth a look.