J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Fandor Criterion Pick: Lady Snowblood

Nothing is as satisfying on the big screen as revenge and nobody did it better than Yuki Kashima, a.k.a. Lady Snowblood. The Angela Mao vehicle Broken Oath is transparently based on her payback story, which also directly inspired Tarantino’s Kill Bill. As cool as Mao is, nobody can touch the original. Newly restored by Janus Films, the legendary Lady Snowblood (trailer here) streams for a limited time as part of Fandor’s Criterion Picks, just in time to make the season merry and bright.

At the dawn of the modernizing Meiji Era, a quartet of criminals killed Kashima’s schoolteacher father and brutalized her mother. Sayo Kashima takes care of one of her assailants personally, but is subsequently convicted of his murder. In prison, she gives birth to Lady Snowblood, mystically passing along her thirst for vengeance through her difficult, ultimately fatal delivery. Trained by Dōkai, a severe Buddhist priest to believe she is an Asura demigod of vengeance, Kashima develops a very particular set of skills.

With the help of Matsuemon’s underground beggar clan, Lady Snowblood starts tracking her three blood enemies. In the process, she crosses paths with tabloid journalist and novelist Ryurei Ashio, who starts telling her story in a popular serialized novel. Like Don Quixote, the telling of Lady Snowblood’s story becomes self-referentially part of her narrative, but with more spurting blood.

Lady Snowblood is sort of the Citizen Kane of Chanbara revenge morality plays. It is exquisitely stylish and relentlessly exploitative. It also just might be the greatest use of color film since Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. Cinematographer Masaki Tamura sure made those reds pop. It is a visual feast that will change how you think about umbrellas forever. Fujita clearly navigates the film’s tricky flashback-heavy narrative structure and stages some wildly cinematic fight sequences.

Meiko Kaji was already approaching cult legend status as the star of the Stray Cat Rock and Female Convict 701 series, but Lady Snowblood totally sealed the deal. She has tons of stone cold femme fatale cred and action chops, but as Kashima, she also happens to give a dashed subtle and complex performance. As Snowblood, she is the complete package. She is the one we watch, but Toshio Kurosawa’s Ashio is also intriguingly complex and appealingly disreputable.

In all truth, Lady Snowblood is one of those films everyone has to catch up with eventually, unless you are just hyper-sensitive beyond all hope. It looks terrific and Kaji remains an awesome icon of vengeance. Compared to Fujita’s classic original, Kill Bill seems rather shallow and shticky. Perfect for a holiday mini-binge, Lady Snowblood and its sequel stream as limited-time Criterion Picks on Fandor for the next eleven days, with a Criterion DVD and BluRay release scheduled for early January.

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