Written by Kazuo Koike (of the Lone Wolf And Cub series) and directed by Toshiya Fujita (of the Stray Cat Rock series) and starring the lovely Meiko Kaji (of the first four original Female Convict Scorpion films), the two Lady Snowblood movies are a veritable Japanese cult film fans dream come true.
Kaji plays Yuki, a young woman whose family is pretty much exterminated before she is even born when a gang of ruthless bandits kidnap, rape and beat her mother and kill off her husband.
The mother is left alive, though just barely, and eventually winds up on prison after tracking down and whipping out one of the thieves. The only thing that's keeping her going is her hatred and her lust for revenge. How does she get her revenge? She gets pregnant of course! Though she dies during childbirth, she does make sure that her daughter, Yuki, will be raised as an assassin capable of killing those who beat ruined her family.
She's taken from the prison after her mother's death and trained by a priest for the next two decades of her life. He teaches her to put aside all emotion and compassion and to function purely as an instrument of death - going so far as to convince her that she is in fact a product of the Netherworld. When she completes her training, she takes her sword and sets out to find the three surviving members of the gang that her mother intended her to kill.
Lady Snowblood is a beautifully shot, picture-esque story of bloody revenge, heavy emphasis on bloody. Those familiar with the aforementioned Lone Wolf And Cub films will feel quite at home here as limbs are lobbed off and arterial spray paints the picture red with blood. Those put off by Kaji's pretty looks can rest assured that this woman is a true bad ass, porcelain doll features or not. She's very convincing as a woman hell-bent for vengeance - and her eyes say it all, conveying some serious anger and animosity towards anyone who might be so unfortunate as to get in her way.
Fujita makes sure that the camera captures not only all of the action but plenty of gorgeous shots of the feudal Japanese locales in which it is set. Plenty of wide angle shots of Yuki walking through beautiful sets such as snow covered streets or the rocky shores of the Japanese coast are contrasted with dramatic close ups which soon lead way to carnage. It's a dark and serious film that is played completely straight, resulting in an effective and dramatic. The fact that her mission of revenge hits so close to home for her makes this an effective story that makes excellent use of its lead's considerable and intense screen presence.
The obvious influence on Quentin Tarantino's recent Kill Bill also needs to be mentioned, as Lucy Lui's character might as well be named Yuki, especially when she's all decked out in her white robes and wielding a sword - a direct and obvious homage to Lady Snowblood.
Lady Snowblood – Lovesong Of Vengeance:
Meiko Kaji would reprise the role in the follow up film, Lady Snowblood – Lovesong of Vengeance (again directed by Toshiya Fujita) which continued the story of Yuki, albeit from a very different angle this time around.
The film begins with Yuki visiting the grave of her dear departed family. As she stands there, remembering her past, she's attacked by a band of assassins who she deals with the only way she knows how – sword to sword! After making short work of her opponents, it turns out that the local authorities are after her. It seems that they know about everyone she killed in the first movie and because of that, they want her locked away to pay for her crimes.
Rather than do the time for her crime, she steals some poor sap's horse and takes off into the the more remote areas around the shore, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. This proves to be less than ideal, however, as the police have tailed her and launch an attach on Yuki while she's strolling down the beach one night. Surprisingly, rather than lay waste to the police officers hounding her as she would have done in the past, she lays down her sword and allows them to take her into custody.
When she's found guilty of murdering thirty-five men at the proceeding trial, the judge sentences her to death and locked away in the very prison in which she was born in the first movie. When she's transported to the location where her execution is to be carried out, a band of political activists attack the caravan and free her in hopes of having her track down a political oppontent named Urami Renga, stealing some papers from him, and assassinating him. If she does this, she will be pardoned for her crimes.
To make her way into her targets inner circle so that she can have access to his documents and kill him off without arising his suspiciouns prior to the deed, she takes a job as his maid. Things get more complicated for Yuki when she finds out that he is quite a noble man and that the activits who put her up to the assassination are actually corrupt police officials who want this man taken out to further their own interests. Yuki decides to side with him, even though she knows that the full fury of the police will be coming down on her hard…
A considerably more poltical films than it's predecessor, Lovesong Of Vengeance is a decent follow up even if it lacks the dark intensity of the first movie. The swordplay and violence is definitely there – plenty of arterial spray paints the screen during the appropriate scenes – but Yuki's motivation is a lot less personal and because of that, she's harder to sympathize with. In terms of pacing and depth, again, it's decent but it doesn't work as well as the first movie for two reasons – things unfold a little bit slower here and Meiko Kaji's performance doesn't seem as brooding or cold and calcuatling, it just seems uninterested. Previously her quiet ways really worked within the confines of the story, here it just seems like she's playing it completely by the books because she has to. That's not to say she doesn't have presence – she still looks fantastic in her white robes brandishing her sword against any and everyone who she feels she needs to – but it's just not as strong without that personal motivation.
That being said, this is still a solid film. The cinematography is great with some exceptionally well choreographed moments of sword-heavy action and carnage. The camera loves Meiko Kaji and gives her ample opportunity to strut her stuff and the movie does deliver a reasonably interesting story as it plays out. It's hard not to compare it to the first film and even harder for this one to measure up, and when judged against it, this sequel is definitely a weaker movie but looked at on its own, it is a worthwhile time killer and samurai fans certainly could do a lot worse.
Animeigo's 2.35.1 widescreen transfers are simply gorgeous, especially when compared to the bootleg DVDs that were going around in R1 not too long ago, (they were almost definitely sourced from the R2 discs that left more than a little to be desired in regards to picture quality in the first place). The images here are razor sharp and Animeigo sets things right with these disc, both of which are presented it their original aspect ratios with wonderfully bright and vivid colors. There's a very high level of detail in both the foreground and the background of the image, and nary a hint of compression artifacts or edge enhancement. The bloods are bright red, the water is deep blue, and the snow is crisp and pristine looking. Print damage is pretty much non-existent save for the odd dust speck here and there. The movies both look fantastic.
Both Lady Snowblood films are presented in their original Japanese language tracks with optional and typo free English subtitles. Being mono tracks, there's obviously not much going on as far as channel separation or directional effects but each disc sounds nice and clear with well balanced levels that nicely bring the dialogue to the playing field in conjunction with the films excellent soundtrack. The opening theme of the first film, which will sound familiar to fans, comes through with chilling clarity.
Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot of supplements here. Some extensive liner notes put the films into historical and cultural context, but aside from that, there is nothing else save for a few trailers for other Animeigo samurai releases. The discs contained in this boxed set are identical to the single disc releases, no additonal supplements have been added save f or the slipcase that houses the two keepcases.
Two excellent films are given fantastic audio and video transfers from Animeigo. While the set is light on extras, the movies deliver in spades and have truly never looked better on home video than they have on these discs. With that said, the Lady Snowblood Collector's Box comes highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.