It begins with the sound of a baby crying in a cell, snow falling outside the gaping slats of a 19-century Meiji prison in Tokyo as inmates gather silently around the child and its dying mother. The juxtaposition of the women’s flowing red robes with the dark wood of the prison bars and pure snow establishes the dominant color palette for the Lady Snowblood films, embodied in the white kimono with crimson inlay worn by the grown-up child, Yuki (Meiko Kaji), as she roams Japan dispatching foes. The elemental simplicity of this chromatic scheme matches the straightforward moral reckoning of Lady Snowblood, a rape-revenge narrative so streamlined that even the gimmick of its achronological editing never muddies the progression of Yuki’s journey.
But if the story is simple, the aesthetic is anything but. The first film pushes low-budget ingenuity to the cusp of experimentation, using paintings and still photographs to fill in historical and narrative context, as well as panels from Kazuo Koike’s original manga to increase scenes of action. Fujita’s direction alternates between carefully composed, mostly static images and rawer, handheld takes of characters in motion. The inconsistency adds layers of surprise and unpredictability that the narrative doesn’t, and the cut-up chronology of the editing is most engaging when it’s timed to the swordfights. Fujita regularly splinters action with abrupt, brief flashes of Yuki’s memories as she cuts down men with dispassion, and echoing shots of the prison walls from the point of view of the newborn Yuki or of places traveled during her hard apprenticeship lend added emotional heft to her quest.
Yuki’s desire to avenge her mother’s rape and her family’s destruction lends Lady Snowblood a focus that’s lost in the less successful sequel, Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance, which replaces single-minded filial fury with a more nebulous consideration of political corruption. Yuki is too simple a character to shoulder the more complicated questions of right and wrong that the first film freely ignores, and despite running just short of 90 minutes, the sequel sometimes feels sluggish when it bogs down in moral quandary. Nonetheless, the action is of the same caliber as its predecessor, and, if anything, it’s even more carefully choreographed and intricately plotted. But that in and of itself is almost a problem given how thoroughly the action undermines whatever point the film wishes to make about state-sponsored violence.
As tonally different as the two films are, they’re bridged by Fujita’s wild stylistic flourishes, from the associative editing to the memorably thick, bright blood splashes of blood that erupt from every wound. But the films are also bound together by Kaji, whose fierce, cold-eyed performances place her within the upper echelon of silent but deadly screen assassins. Even in the moral turpitude of the second film, Kaji never lets the look of total rage leave Yuki’s face, etched as it is from a life of hardship and brutal conditioning.
Yuki’s movements are graceful and subtle, like the way she calmly starts to unsheathe the blade hidden in her parasol when surrounded by bandits, and the total calm in the face of boisterous, threatening men is almost as terrifying as the warrior’s actual demonstrations of skill. Fujita’s unhinged direction may be what brings in fans, but it’s Kaji’s coiled-spring intensity that offers the greatest reward upon repeat viewings.
Criterion’s 2K restorations restore vibrancy to these inventive films, highlighting the careful balance of color and blocking in Toshiya Fujita’s compositions as well as maintaining image stability in the more washed-out handheld shots. The healthy replication of cool earth tones makes the slashes of red pop all the more violently, adding to the films’ intensity. Lossless mono tracks accurately render the punchy, loudly mixed sound effects of martial-arts exploitation, but dialogue is also clear and balanced, free of muffled softness or scratchy artifacts.
There’s not a great deal to dissect about these films beyond their imagistic pleasures, and so it comes as little surprise that Criterion’s disc doesn’t overflow with extras. The only features of note are two interviews, one conducted with manga author Kazuo Koike, the other with screenwriter Norio Osada. Neither interview is especially revelatory, but Koike and Osada provide a fair bit of information on the films and the comics that spawned them; Koike in particular is interesting for delving into, and at times defending, his artistic choices for material that was too risqué to be filmed. There are also trailers for the two films, as well as an essay by critic Howard Hampton.
Beautifully restored with new 2K transfers, Toshiya Fujita’s grindhouse classics look more than ever like the idiosyncratic, personal projects that they are.