Release date: December 1st, 1973
Running time: 97 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Director: Toshiya Fujita
Writers: Kazuo Uemura, Kazuo Koike
Cast: Meiko Kaji, Miyoko Akaza, Eiji Okada, Toshio Kurasawa
Revenge. How do you feel when you hear the word? Based on a fairly stereotypical – but somewhat true nevertheless – understanding of liberal and conservative perspectives, revenge can be undesirable and justified, respectively. If this is in fact a correct assessment, I’d have to say I’m conservative on the subject. When looking at examples of people acting on this urge, I can’t help but conclude that revenge can be justified. I sometimes feel it’s reasonable to classify revenge as a form of delayed or perhaps merely unsuccessful self-defence. Of course, we can’t undo whatever crime was committed against them or their loved ones, but that has no correlation with the act of revenge being justified or otherwise.
Having said that, revenge can be a toxic animal. Revenge, as a direct consequence of an act of aggression may be justified, but in spite of the complexity of individual cases, I tend to draw the line at a certain point. If revenge can be understood as a form of self-defence, it can also be understood as ideology in its prolonged form. In other words, I have a problem with revenge when it’s passed on from one generation to the next.
In the opening scene of Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood, we see the birth of a baby in a women’s prison who is then devoted to a life of vengeance by her mother (Miyoko Akaza). At this point we’re just like the baby; we don’t know why this life of violence has to be, or whether the cause is a righteous one or not. As we later learn, there was in fact a horrible crime committed against the mother, Sayo, when her husband and son were killed and she was subsequently raped. Getting to know her back-story, it’s hard not to feel that the striving for revenge is justified. The mission of vengeance remains incomplete however when Sayo is imprisoned for stabbing one of the four perpetrators to death.
Sayo’s mind is nevertheless one of focus and determination – if not blind fanaticism – so she seduces several prison guards to get impregnated in order to produce an offspring whose sole purpose in life is to complete the work Sayo couldn’t. As a result, Yuki aka Lady Snowblood (Meiko Kaji) is born into a world where the only thing she knows is vengeance with rigorous training starting from childhood to make her the formidable warrior she needs to be in order to track down and kill the three people who did wrong to her mother.
While I initially disapproved of the story of Lady Snowblood, watching a child made to fight someone else’s battle, the film does make the point that all of this is done in vain and with painful consequences. When the only female member of her targets is dead, Yuki mistakenly believes that her mission is complete, she expresses a sense of emptiness only to reaffirm that her mother’s vengeance is hers – even though there is no one left to kill. Yuki holding someone else’s grudge, doesn’t get a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment when finally exacting revenge.
There’s more the film has to offer on this when Lady Snowblood kills the final perpetrator Gishiro (Eiji Okada) in the film’s climax. A writer named Ryurei (Toshio Kurasawa), the only person who manages to get somewhat closer than most to the cold and unfriendly Lady Snowblood, gets caught up in the final battle. In a blind act of fanaticism, she stabs through Ryurei’s body with her sword eventually penetrating the heart of Gishiro behind him. That tiny spark of what could’ve been the beginning of a love story is destroyed by Yuki’s revenge that had transformed into rigid ideology by now.
Therefore the film’s portrayal of a prolonged desire for revenge appropriately shows all of the consequences that derive from that. Emptiness, pain, loneliness and a complete lack of personal identity are all results of Yuki’s fanatic upbringing. She’s desperately holding on to the only purpose that she was allowed to have – and when that purpose is no longer, a lonely person is revealed who’s frightened by the complexity that replaced the simple mission she understood so well.
I have to admit, even if this point wasn’t made and the film was left somewhat morally ambiguous by glorifying its core theme, I would still feel compelled to recommend it. The non-linear structure divided into chapters, the style, the immensely beautiful set pieces and Meiko Kaji’s wonderful performance as Lady Snowblood all add up to a classic that is a pleasure to watch.
In the climax, however, it becomes very clear that Lady Snowblood’s mission is far more tragic than it is noble. Seeing these consequences puts Yuki’s mother in a different light altogether. It is her, who decided to expose her child to a life of pain instead of trying to shield her from it. Lady Snowblood’s character resembles the grim phenomenon we know as child soldiers and her hatred reminds us of violent ideologies that still hold much of the world hostage to grudges that should have long been forgotten.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.