For pretty much as long as I can remember Criterion has been the gold standard when it comes to home video entertainment. They release the best of the best across a wide variety of film genres, emphasis on wide variety. This is important because I still know a handful of people who have a very specific idea of what type of films Criterion releases. They picture the label only releasing artsy, pretentious films. Fortunately these people are just a bit misinformed.
If you know somebody that feels this way, I recommend showing them The Complete Lady Snowblood from Criterion. The films star Meiko Kaji and were directed by Toshiya Fujita, adapted from a manga of the same name.
In 1873 a married couple and their young son are arriving in their new town. The husband (Masaaki Daimon) is the new elementary school teacher and he’s eager to get started. Just as they are entering the town they are attacked by four criminals – Kitahama Okono (Sanae Nakahara), Takemura Banzō (Noboru Nakaya), Shokei Tokuichi (Takeo Chii) and Tsukamoto Gishirō (Eiji Okada). Okono holds the wife, Sayo (Miyoko Akaza), down as the three men killer her husband and son. They then rape Sayo.
When everything is all said and done, Tokuichi takes Sayo away with and forces her to work for him. Sayo waits for the right moment and then kills Tokuichi with a knife. This ends up getting Sayo thrown in jail. Once there she sleeps with a prison guard in an attempt to get pregnant. Her plan is to have a baby who can grow up and seek vengeance in her name…and it works. Sayo gives birth to a girl named Yuki and then shortly after passes away in prison. Yuki is set to live and train with a priest named Dōkai (Kō Nishimura).
As Yuki grows up she becomes Lady Snowblood (Meiko Kaji) and dedicates her life to seek the remaining three criminals who attacked her mother.
Lady Snowblood was a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series and it’s easy to see why. There are a number of similarities between the two film franchises. Both are told out of sequence, Lady Snowblood jumps back and forth from before she is born to her current journey. Both films are revenge films shot out of sequence. Tarantino borrowed some visuals; most notably I’d say are some of the snowfall sequences. The character of O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill is actually based off Lady Snowblood and her battle with the bride takes place in a setting that is almost entirely pulled from Lady Snowblood. And obviously there is the theme song, song by Kaji, which Tarantino used.
It’s very easy to see why a movie like this would resonate with a young Tarantino. On the most basic level, Lady Snowblood is freakin’ awesome! From the opening frame to the final shot, it’s just a complete blast. I still can’t believe how much blood is in this movie. Limbs are chopped off, people are halved and blood is constantly spraying everywhere in nice healthy streams. Hey, this is my kind of movie!
From a technical standpoint the film is beautiful. What probably stands out the most is the cinematography of Masaki Tamura. The movie looks absolutely gorgeous. I love the snowy landscapes and the way Tamura captured them on film. My favorite show is from inside the prison looking out the window and we see the snow falling down with a red backdrop. It’s breathtaking.
Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance
The sequel to Lady Snowblood opens with Yuki (Kaji, reprising her role) being surrounded and attacked by a ton of police. She kills a number of them before finally realizing there are too many for even her to take on and she gives up. Yuki is arrested and sentenced to hang but right before her sentenced is to be executed she is saved by the head of the Secret Police Kikui Seishiro (Shin Kishida).
Kikui is aware of Yuki’s past and wants to use her special skills to help serve the government. He enlists her as a spy to infiltrate the home of Tokunaga Ransui (Juzo Itami), an anarchist who is seen as an enemy of the state. Yuki is advised that Tokunaga has a critical document that could bring down the government. Yuki’s job is to retrieve that document, but once she spends time with Tokunaga she is unsure as to which side is the good side.
Love Song of Vengeance isn’t nearly as good as the first film. That’s not to say it’s bad because it’s certainly not. It does, however, lack some of the fun of the first film. In Lady Snowblood there is a good balance of introducing us to Yuki and her backstory while making sure the film gets going right away. In Long Song of Vengeance things take a little longer to pick up.
Maybe it was just the political stuff that I didn’t find as interesting but personally I see Lady Snowblood as a hired assassin. I don’t really care that much to see her spend time trying to find some important document. I want to see her assassinating and this time around it took longer to get to that point.
All that being said the film is still very good and entertaining, just in a different way. Tamura is back once again shooting gorgeous landscapes and Kaji is still kick-ass. Things are just toned down a smidge.
Criterion has released both films together in one wonderful set. The films are both on one disc, but given the space availability on Blu-rays that’s more than enough room to not have to cram the films on. Transfers on booth films are stunning, which is very important for movies that rely heavily on strong, vivid visuals like these. Not a lot of special features but you do get to brand new interviews. The first is with Kazuo Koikie, the creator of the Lady Snowblood magna, and the second is with Norio Osada, the man who adapted the magna into screenplays. Combined these are just over 30 minutes and give you a bit of insight on the creation of this great character.
Criterion has never steered me wrong before and this is another fantastic release from them. I really can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t get this.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
The Complete Lady Snowblood is now available on Blu-ray from Criterion.