For the purposes of this review it's worth stating right off the bat that this was a PR disc, and both movies came with no packaging and on one disc. The official release will come with 2 discs - 1 Blu-ray with both movies, and one DVD.
Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld
“Who are you?!"
There's no easy way to say this – Kill Bill owes a debt to Lady Snowblood that has yet to be paid, and this is one lady you do not skip payments with.
The fact is that even Tarantino himself has said that Snowblood is one of the primary influences for his biopic masterpiece about the Bride's revenge. He makes no secret of the fact, and as such shouldn't be scorned too badly for this debt that is owed. Truth is, it's a certainty that the majority of people who have seen and enjoyed Kill Bill, remain mostly unaware of this utterly captivating and genuinely thrilling tale of blood curdling revenge.
Set at a time when Japan was beginning to open itself up to the west, Lady Snowblood is a pioneering work in the femme fatale style movie. Whilst a lot Japanese cinema revolved largely around Erotica and Roman Porno at the time, Korean born director Toshiya Fujita, best known for his Youth Movies in Japan that broke away from the mainstream direction that Japanese cinema was taking, delivers a wonderful retelling of the original Manga – Shurayuki-hime. Already a hugely popular tale in Japan, and with Fujita being one of the forefathers of Gekiga Anime - a style that adopted a more cinematic approach than the anime that might spring to mind at the utterance of the word - it really was a perfect match.
It begins in a women's prison, as do all good tales of woe. A woman lies clinging to her life as onlookers stand by, helpless, watching as she delivers a baby. There are complications, this is plain to see. When the baby girl is born, the mother, in her dying breath, invokes a duty on her newborn child to avenge her death.
The woman tells her tale – several years previous, she had been forced to watch as her son and husband were murdered by four villainous evil-doers – A woman named Kitahama Okono, and three men, Takemura Banzō, Shokei Tokuichi, Tsukamoto Gishirō. She had then been repeatedly raped by the men of the company of criminals, one of whom took her as his own and brought her to his homestead as a toy and slave. A strong woman she was, and as such had no intention of remaining a victim. She murdered him with a blade, a crime for which she now lays in prison, dying. Once in prison, she felt helpless and alone. How would vengeance for her husband and son be delivered if she was trapped in prison? So she decides to seduce every prison guard she can, desperately trying to get pregnant with a son to shoulder her burden of revenge. Eventually, she is successful in her task, but only in part. She now lays next to her baby girl and declares her a tool for delivering revenge.
“You were born for vengeance…such a poor child.”
And so the baby is taken away from the prison and as a child, is trained by a priest named Dōkai. In the interest of clarity, this is the equivalent of Pai Mei. Dōkai is a ruthless taskmaster, harsh in his tuition and unforgiving of the child's inability to perform the tasks he sets for her, such as being placed inside a hollowed barrel and pushed violently down a hill, ordered not to fall out.
As the years wear on, the child becomes a young woman, blessed with breathtaking beauty and a master of the art of swordsmanship. At barely twenty years of age, fully trained and bloodthirsty, she is unleashed on the world to exact her vengeance on all four who stole the lives of her mother, brother and father.
This is where the rivers begin to run red, and fountains of pink blood begin to spurt. We follow Yuki (Meiko Kaji) as she hunts down the assailants involved in the crime that led to the death of her family, each one with it's own chapter. It's extremely well put together, flowing from one story arc to another effortlessly. Along the way, we discover more and more about Yuki and how she lives and breathes revenge. Played by the staggeringly beautiful Meiko Kaji, Yuki's character is the archetype femme fatale. Quiet, cold, brutal, vicious, and absolutely gorgeous.
She moves across delicious scenery that is wonderfully shot, whilst slicing and dicing up her victims. Never once is she portrayed as being invincible though, sustaining both physical and emotional injuries along the way. There's the battle of her conscience when she encounters a young girl out throwing her weaved baskets into the sea. It transpires that her father is one of Yuki's targets and she ritualistically discards these baskets that she makes in order to save her father's pride, telling him that she sells them for money so that they can eat. The reality is that she sells her body to the local townsmen for money and throws away her useless and unwanted baskets. This is a touching and heartbreaking tale for Yuki to hear, and she must battle with her conscience about the fact that she must kill this poor girl's father.
She meets a young writer on her travels. He is bold and confident, and tries to convince her to let him write her story down to tell. Wishing to remain anonymous, she obviously refuses. However, the story comes out anyway. She feels betrayed somehow, but she doesn't understand how. Worried that the exposure may scare away her targets, she approaches Dōkai, her mentor about it. He says that he is responsible for the story, and that he is convinced that it will lure out the target, who's pride will be knocked at the telling of the tale. Yuki is humbled when it turns out that he was right.
Take my word for it, there's no shortage of spurting fountains of pink blood here. You're unlikely to feel cheated if you want a real hack-em-up Samurai classic, but those of you who have had the pleasure of seeing the Lone Wolf and Cub movies and have somehow managed to avoid Lady Snowblood, as if such an occurrence were even possible, then you you'll find it's a slightly more traditional story telling than all out bloodbath. It leans heavier on the revenge side of the spectrum through emotive acting and audience empathy than Lone Wolf does. This is another thing that Lady Snowblood and Kill Bill have in common. Where Lone Wolf and Cub will purposefully focus on a man being chopped in half from head to toe, Lady Snowblood will show you Yuki's face being sprayed with blood as she slashes away. Much more subtle and Lady-like.
There are plenty of twists and turns throughout the telling of this bloody tale, and throughout, we are captivated by how effortless and familiar the story is. The first thing that anyone watching this movie for the first time is going to do, is compare it to Kill Bill.
First off, its about revenge. So too is Kill Bill. A young girl features in both movies. Both movies have training scenes where a girl is shown a harsh hand by a male master. Both movies feature a scene shot in the calm and peacefulness of snowfall, and both of these scenes are juxtaposed by the tranquil surroundings and the bloody violence. Both movies feature an epic battle scene in which the femme fatale hero faces unsporting odds but comes out victorious. Both movies have a 1970's tone to them, mostly through the soundtrack in Kill Bill I grant you, but there is a similar tone nevertheless. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the movies are different enough from one another, however Kill Bill bears all the hallmarks of Lady Snowblood. It's not that Tarantino lifted material directly from Lady Snowblood, but he comes damn close. Of course, he never once tried to hide this from us. In fact, he is even reported to have insisted that cast and crew on set with Kill Bill spend their down time watching Lady Snowblood and Lone Wolf and Cub. Boy does it show.
It's every bit as intense as Kill Bill, but with a much more traditional feel. Cinematography is at times questionable, but it always feels authentic and genuine. Meiko Kaji is beautiful and deadly, and carries the role of Yuki brilliantly. She is believable and fierce. You could do far worse than slicing off a chunk of this Samurai Classic on a cold Friday evening.
And so to the sequel that followed two years later...
Lady Snowblood: Love song of Vengeance
Or to give it a less intriguing and more appropriately dull title, Lady Snowblood 2 – far more deserving for such a poor sequel. Of course, to follow Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld was always going to be an incredibly tough task, but to fail so monumentally was beyond my comprehension.
It picks up pretty much where it leaves off with Snowblood 1, and at first, it shows huge promise, with a battle on the beach of gargantuan proportions. Yuki looks terrifically outnumbered, ridiculously calm, but we've just watched her skewer more than 50 people in the Snowblood 1. These policemen now tackling her on the beach do not know what they're letting themselves in for. And folks, this is right about where the dreams of a sequel that holds it's own and stands on it's own two feet falls with a colossal bump on it's backside. The fight takes place, sure. She's hugely outnumbered, hell yes. She looks appropriately concerned, but nonetheless determined, check. Why then, does every move she makes look like it's about a foot off the target?
As she dances between the many attackers, slashing and stabbing, it's literally plain to see that it's rehearsed. There's no conviction to any of the movements, and on several occasions, you can see would be attackers fall with blood gushing out of the their chests without having been hit. Perhaps the intention was to make Yuki look like it was a completely effortless and magical dance that she has perfected, but instead, it just looks like she had about 10 minutes to practice before shooting commenced. Her face, alight with concentration, looks like she's trying to remember which side she's supposed to swipe on next, and the attackers all look like they're just running on to her sword. Folks, Lady Snowblood: Love song of Vengeance can be summed up thusly – It's rushed, and it's poor.
As I mentioned, it picks up nearly straight away after the first movie. Yuki has a great big fight on the beach with a lot of policemen. After some time, she is subdued and captured. Very quicklly, she is tried and sentenced to death. However, her police escort is attacked and she is rescued by Kikui Seishiro, the head of the secret police's men. When she is brought before the head policeman, the reason for her rescue is made clear. He wants her to spy on and recover some important documents from a well known political anarchist and opponent of the current state, Tokunaga Ransui. Kikiu is inexplicably obsessed with these documents, though as the audience we're never really privileged to understand why. Something about the stability of the government. Yuki agrees to recover the documents in exchange for her life. Fine.
Whilst acting as a spy in Ransui's home, she begins to warm to the political activist. Questioning the merits of what Kikiu has asked her to do, she decides to switch allegiance to Ransui, and double cross Kikiu. Please don't ask me to explain why all of a sudden she's even interested in politics, you know, being a child born for vengeance and all. Anyway, when Kikiu hears of this, he's furious, naturally. Yuki has suddenly become a political anarchist alongside the passionate Ransui. After she has been acting as his personal bodyguard for some time, he confides in her, and asks her to deliver the documents to his brother. And so Yuki's path is led far astray from that of revenge, and moves ever defiantly into the realms of politics. With the two sides going to war with one another, Yuki is caught in the middle with strong feelings for the anti government movement. She battles for justice for the slums and against the prosperity of the rich.
It's an absolute mess. It's completely lost it's way. I was devastated that such an inredibly strong femme fatale became such a maiden of whimsy, leaning this way and then that, changing her mind more often than her underwear, and all based on very little. In fact, why Yuki should feel strongly one way or another completely goes against who the character is, and that it winds up being political motives that sway her this way and that is the final nail in the coffin for me.
The acting is nothing short of abysmal too I'm afraid. Maniacal cackling from the bad guys gets increasingly grating as the movie wears on. I wouldn't have been surprised if the bad guys all donned mirrored aviator sunglasses a la Rambo bad guys to be honest, except you'd find that the acting in Rambo is glorious compared to this. Choreography is dismal too. I'm never once convinced that Yuki is at all capable with a sword. I understand that she's supposed to be able to cut a man in half with barely the flick of a wrist, but here, you're watching her sword wobble around like it's too heavy for her or something. At times it looks as if she's never held a sword before. I just can't find anything about the fighting believable. Don't get me started on why most of the fighting happens to the tune of funk revolution and mad-rush seventies style whacka-whacka guitar.
Direction on the movie is wildly different to that of the first, with some absolutely woeful camera movements at times. Like the moment when the camera tracks Yuki and Ransui from above as they walk around a building below. It's like a moving dutch tilt that actually makes you feel a little queasy if you're watching on a big screen. Framing of the characters is odd as well to say the least, often with foreground characters only with their head in shot to allow for background characters to be in shot too. It's just weird.
It's saving grace is that the movie actually flows reasonably well. You're never lost as to what's going on, and although it's utterly far fetched and completely out of sync with the first movie, it's not narratively flawed at all.
All in all, the whole thing feels terribly rushed and I'm genuinely struggling to find positives to pick out. It's a samurai movie with little by way of genuine samurai action. More a political statement than an entertainment piece. A poor show for what promised to be such an exciting sequel.
Such a shame that both movies together don't make up one mighty whole of samurai classics. They couldn't be further apart in my opinion, and if I'm honest, the mere existance of Snowblood 2 is a detriment to Snowblood one on this disc. Take both movies in isolation and you will happily fall immediately in love with Snowblood 1. You'll become besotted almost instantly with it's oozing of class and quality, right from the beginning. However Snowblood 2 you'll quickly see through and discard as a mistake that deserves little or no attention. But here, they've been stapled back to back, and for that's wrong. Having said that, Snowblood 2 does appear as an "Extra" on the disc, so thankfully the dominant movie is the first one. Maybe this was entirely intentional? We'll never know, but whatever you do, don't miss the first movie. It's a classic.
As you can see the respective scores, I'm going to drop a point of the 8 I would give it if this only contained Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld. Make no mistake, The first movie is propping up the second here.
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