“Lady Snowblood” – A.J. Hakari

They say that even the best steal from one another. If that’s the case, then Quentin Tarantino is the D.B. Cooper of cinematic swindlers. The man’s pop culture know-how has shone through no matter what the project, but if the Kill Bill saga is any indication, he owes the makers of Lady Snowblood an apology — not to mention some royalties. Though Tarantino definitely put his own spin on its story of bloody revenge, Lady Snowblood started the party with plenty of flair all its own. With equal parts brutality and strangely serene imagery, it’s chambara cinema at its finest, not to mention a compelling meditation on a certain notion that’s best served cold.

If you thought you had a lot to live up to, just ask Yuki (Meiko Kaji) about her family history. Following her husband’s death at the hand of a quartet of ne’er-do-wells, Yuki’s mother Sayo (Miyoko Akaza) set into motion a plan to bring the fiends to justice. A couple of years and one dead baddie later, Sayo gives birth to Yuki in prison and, on her deathbed, orders that the little one carry on her quest for vengeance. Decades pass, in which Yuki trains herself to endure the most intense of hardships, as well as to wield a blade with lethal grace. One by one, she seeks out the names on her “to kill” list, determined to restore honor to dearly departed Sayo’s name. But after encountering a writer (Toshio Kurosawa) who decides to chronicle her exploits, Yuki comes to question her actions, forcing her to choose between pursuing her own life or fulfilling her mother’s final, blood-soaked wishes.

At the risk of any fanboys crying foul, allow me to clarify my earlier remarks regarding a certain Pulp Fiction mastermind. I don’t mean to condemn the Kill Bill pictures, which deserve all the kudos and acclaim they’ve received. But with all they have in common with Lady Snowblood, from the revenge storyline to being divided into chapters, there’s no reason fans of Tarantino’s work can’t jump into this one with just as much ease. If your appetite leans towards the rouge stuff, then this is a slice-’em-up smorgasbord that won’t disappoint. It’s about in the same vein as the Lone Wolf and Cub series, with blood often spraying across the screen and forming an oddly beautiful medley of images in the process. Seas run red, falling snow contrasts with blood shed, and Yuki dispatches her enemies with the utmost precision. You don’t just die in Lady Snowblood; you die twice over, as evidenced by how Yuki memorably halves a target who’s already hung herself.

But for all its clashing swords and geysers of gore, Lady Snowblood possesses an intelligence as sharp as Yuki’s blade. It’s fun watching Yuki slash her way through all manner of sleazebags, but director Toshiya Fujita ensures the audience’s interest is wrangled even when action is on the back burner. He handles Yuki’s struggles with patience and subtlety; plot twists are handled with care and make swift work of testing our girl’s meddle. As the conflicted heroine, Kaji is more than up to the task of embracing both sides of her personality. Just as Yuki is instructed to kill without mercy while looking like she’d never hurt a fly, Kaji handles herself perfectly as both an eye-catching lead and a true woman of action. When doubt lingers into her conscience, Kaji is there to convey her emotions with pitch-perfect precision. It’s a shame the climax glazes over this thematic oomph in favor of a more swashbuckling finale, but not can I say is there a moment where the film has you really, truly bored.

The likes of Zatoichi and Ogami Itto hog all the press when it comes to samurai icons, but Yuki proves herself worthy of a place on the mantle and then some. Revenge may be a well movies have retreated to for years, but when they’re as stylish and compelling as Lady Snowblood, who can blame them for taking just one more dip?

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Read Daniel Matusov’s Lady Snowblood review here.

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