Saturday 17 November 2012

Lady Snowblood
(Toshiya Fujita, 1973)

Snow falls like a funeral
For the dead morning
Stray dogs howl in the distance as she walks
The sound of her ‘geta’
Piercing the air
She walks on, weighed down by karma

Justice and mercy
Tears and dreams
Yesterday and tomorrow
Words that have no hold on her now

The woman who has immersed herself in the river of vengeance
Gave herself up long ago

As mentioned in my introduction to the first Think Pink reviews round-up, I always intended to use the heading to take in a number of films that don’t fit at all comfortably under the ‘Pinky Violence’ banner but nonetheless find themselves associated with it in the West – a notion that’s particularly worth bearing in mind in this case, as I’m sure that star Meiko Kaji, director Toshiya Fujita and Toho studios would all spit blood at the thought of their film being described as PV.

Though she is often thought of as the definitive Pinky Violence star thanks to her pioneering work in the ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ and ‘Stray Cat Rock’ franchises, it seems that Kaji – by all accounts a lady just as determined and formidable as one of her characters – did everything she could to distance herself from the kind of exploitation typified by the ‘pinky violence’ tag, and the films she made outside of the two aforementioned series during the early ‘70s are all essentially attempts to take a more serious, ‘respectable’ approach to female-led action/revenge movies, largely free from the nudity and cheap sexploitation elements that were becoming increasingly prevalent in Toei and Nikkatsu’s output.

Produced for a subsidiary of the more venerable and up-market Toho studios, ‘Lady Snowblood’ – based on the manga by ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ authors Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kamimura – perfectly typifies this trend in Kaji’s films. Although many of the elements here – the simplistic revenge plotline, ridiculously exaggerated comic book bloodshed and frequent use of the zoom lens as a visual exclamation point – are still pure ‘70s exploitation, ‘Lady Snowblood’ nonetheless adopts a heavier, more self-consciously artistic tone than most of its competitors, fleshing out its central character’s traumatic background in lengthy, harrowing detail, accompanied by much pontificating on the whims of fate and the nature of revenge and so on, set against the muted tones and beautified landscapes of a grand historical drama.

Some may see all this as adding a compelling, atmospheric grandeur to proceedings, helping to elevate the film to a level rarely seen in quick turnover b-movie fare. Others though will no doubt find it as overblown and self-important - an empty attempt to raise the stock of what’s essentially just baseline pulp fiction. Myself, I’m kinda on the fence.

In the film’s favour is the fact that it’s extremely well made, with Fujita clearly making optimum use of the resources at his disposal, revelling in some of the most elaborate production design ever seen in a female action/revenge film. Sets, shooting locations and costumes are all exquisite, with the entire movie giving the impression of being art-designed and colour co-ordinated to the n-th degree, lending its images an ‘iconic’ resonance – a certain, ineffable sense of elegant ‘coolness’ – that would certainly be prove difficult to replicate on a tighter budget & schedule. (In particular, you wonder where Kaji’s character gets her supply of stunningly beautiful outfits, roaming the land with no means of financial support, not to mention the cleaning costs necessitated by all that blood flying everywhere, but… oh yeah, stylised comic book adaptation – we’re not supposed to think about that stuff too deeply.)

The achievements of the art department are also matched by the effort that’s been put into the film’s fight sequences, which again goes way beyond the level normally seen in Japanese exploitation, aspiring more to the high velocity swashbuckling of a prime Hong Kong wuxia flick, with the addition of majestic arcs of gore spurting hither and yon, the effects team seemingly rigging up each victim with a series of hosepipes to aid the beyond parodic celebration of arterial spray.

So, yeah - basically, if you’ve got a thing for absurd fountains of blood soiling pristine white kimonos, this is the movie for you. No opportunity is missed to fill the screen with bright whites and reds, whether represented through actual blood and snow, or costumes, flowers, décor and set dressing, the two colours blaze supernaturally against a stormy, autumnal background - a less than subtle reflection of the imagery of the film’s title of course, but also one that takes on added resonance in view of the story’s rather nebulous political sentiments.

And indeed, much of the time this stuff works brilliantly, delivering precisely the kind of hyper-real bloodshed us post-Argento, post-Tarantino ‘cult film’ fans are supposed to eat for breakfast, whilst also drawing us into the movie with a genuine emotional clout, filling our heads with bold, blazing images that live long in the memory.

Other times though, it doesn’t quite cut it. The film’s ponderous narration swiftly becomes comically tedious (can you remind us that this woman is “a child of the netherworld, living only for vengeance” again, mr. narrator? You haven’t mentioned it for a few minutes, and I’m worried I might forget..), whilst the sporadic attempts to invoke an ‘arthouse’ aesthetic are questionable at best. A good examples is the sequence in which the daughter of one of Kaji’s victims throws her collection of hand-wrought wicker dolls into the ocean as ‘poignant’ music swells on the soundtrack, bringing back unhappy memories of the unbearably pretentious Chinese ‘New Wave’ films I had to watch as part of a college course a few years back. (Honest to god, I mean, I love experiencing cinema from all countries and genres, don’t get me wrong, but sitting through some of those made me wish I’d taken Chemistry instead.)

During moments like these, I couldn’t help but think of the very different films Norifumi Suzuki was making over at Toei at around the same time, and in particular the incredible Sex & Fury. Although it’s difficult to confidently ascertain which came first given that both films share a 1973 copyright, Suzuki’s epic certainly plays very much like a cheeky sexploitation response to Fujita’s film, verging into the realm of an outright rip-off at its near-identical conclusion. Garish, prurient and opportunistic, a film like that would no doubt have been looked down upon by everyone who worked on this one, but taken out of context 'Sex & Fury' is arguably the more impressive of the two works, weaving together a tapestry that is just as lavish and visually imaginative as ‘Lady Snowblood’, building an altogether more complex and uncertain portrait of Taishō-era corruption and injustice, and doing so in a manner that is often a hell of a lot more entertaining than the dour, formal approach taken by Fujita and his collaborators.

Not that ‘Lady Snowblood’ is exactly lacking in political clout – in fact it’s just as suffused with it as with gore. Despite their slightly abstract period settings, Koike and Kamimura’s manga maintained a strong connection with contemporary left wing issues, and whilst Lady Snowblood’s calling as an all-purpose righter of class-based wrongs is explored in more depth in the film’s sequel, this initial instalment still never misses a chance to characterise her antagonists as representatives of various aspects of the wave of capitalist greed and state-sponsored criminality that was seen to be sweeping Japan in the period in which the story is set.

Straight out of the opening credits, scene-setting historical narration immediately begins criticising the Meiji-era government for their use of a military draft and misguided pursuit of imperialism, zeroing in on the assorted evils wrought by “mercenary businessmen, plutocrats and corrupt officials” – a class which in fiction set in the Meiji and Taishō eras often seems synonymous with those trying to import ‘decadent’ Western values (and, by extension, the subsequent excesses of European-style military imperialism) into Japanese society.

Even if this notion is never broken down in great detail in the film’s script, the subtext becomes hard to miss during the film’s conclusion, in which the Final Villain (who is now an arms dealer, gleefully helping prepare Japan for the ensuing global conflict) explains through a rather clunking chunk of exposition that he runs his operation out of a newly constructed, Western style building ostensibly opened by the government to receive guests from foreign powers, but in reality housing nightly orgies of “self gratification and shameless hedonism” for the country’s corrupt elite.

When Yuki subsequently attends one of these gatherings in the course of instigating a showdown with the rascal in question, her traditional dress sticks out like a sore thumb amid the multi-lingual, Western-garbed chattering classes, and when the bad guy finally gets what’s coming to him, he does so clutching the Japanese flag, as the literal and symbolic applications of the film’s colour scheme combine in one of those tormented moments of fractured national identity that Japanese b-movies can often embody so powerfully – nationalism and socialism, pacifism and bloody murder, all mixed up in a cathartic howl of cinematic confusion.

Despite all this though, the film is first and foremost a personal vengeance narrative, and beyond of any of the other notes filling up our ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ columns, it’s worth noting that Meiko Kaji herself is absolutely superb, delivering probably an even more extreme, single-minded performance than in the Scorpion films, and certainly a more nuanced one. Drawn and ashen- faced, she perfectly embodies the kind of unstoppable, quasi-supernatural force that the role demands, but at the same time manages to bring out a fragility in the character that helps transform her into a genuinely great heroine. However much she may aspire toward becoming a robotic, inhuman avenger, there is something behind her eyes that suggests that any minute now, her mask will crack, her training will fail, and the abused, orphaned child within will be revealed.

Allowing the sometimes melodramatic nature of the story’s presentation to bounce off her as painlessly as the blows of the assorted goons she ploughs through en route to her real targets, she keeps the human calm at the centre of the metaphorical storm solid and touchable at all times. A subtle touch, too fleeting to really explain properly, it is this certain something in Kaji’s performance that really makes the character, and, by extension, makes the film.

If you’ve read anything at all about ‘Lady Snowblood’ then you’ll no doubt be aware that it is the film that ‘inspired’ the central episodic framework (and much more besides) in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’, so I’m contractually obliged to mention that before we finish, but needless to say, it’s easy to see why the film made such an impression on him. For all its affectations and potential missteps, and for all that it might help to perpetuate just about every Japanese cinema cliché in the book, '..Snowblood' remains a landmark tour de force of stylised action film-making, and, in much the same way that Harry Kumel’s ‘Daughters of Darkness’ is often described as “the Citzen Kane of lesbian vampire movies”, I think Kaji and Fujita have a pretty good contender here for “the Citizen Kane of movies about wronged women wreaking bloody vengeance”... with all the positive and negative connotations that might imply.

(Thanks to the machinations of the big QT, ‘Lady Snowblood’s fantastic theme song is of course widely available from your mp3 provider of choice, so, rather than providing a download here, I’ll leave you to track it down via legitimate means, perhaps even helping to earn Meiko Kaji some miniscule amount of royalties in the process.)

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