Lady Snowblood (1973) and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)- Samurai Exploitation Classics

Lady Snowblood is a samurai exploitation film released by the Toho Company in 1973. We wouldn’t be discussing it today if not for Quentin Tarantino’s film Kill Bill Vol. 1 which was heavily inspired by Lady Snowblood and borrowed the theme as well as many elements of the plot.It’s a forgettable film by most standards with pretty poor cinematography throughout and sword fight scenes that are laughable at best. But there’s an endearing quality to the film that make it hard not to enjoy in some capacity. Lady Snowblood is considered a classic by many who pay attention to the Asian film market and it may happen to be one of the first revenge/slasher films ever made. Let’s explore the original film a little before discussing where the sequel went wrong.

Lady Snowblood was born for vengeance, given the task by her dead mother to kill the four people responsible for her husband’s death and her rape. Yuki, Snowblood’s actual name, trains for years to become a competent sword wielder and in her early twenties begins her bloody revenge. The story is told in four chapters, another facet of the film Tarantino would later make his signature.

The film works in a number of ways. It has a very gonzo style that intercuts manga, historical footage, and scenes from Yuki’s past with a narrator who helps us understand all the history and story without seeming intrusive (the narrator is actually writing her story for a novel, the chapters are actual chapters in this novel…this pays off later in the movie in a very creative way). The majority of the film’s footage is shot very shakily and it’s a seemingly unprofessional production. The shakiness and lack of any real choreography may be a turn off to some, but is endearing to me and gives a grungier and more exploitative feel. It very much comes across as a low budget production meant to play in seedy theaters.

Some of the production decisions I quite liked and felt were extremely memorable. Lady Snowblood’s white yukata is meant to parallel the snow in her name and the snow that fell on the day of her birth. It’s an obvious contrast to the blood that sprays all over her throughout the film. I liked how the beginning of the movie with Yuki’s birth parallels the end of the movie with her seeming death. In the first scene she’s a screaming child with snow falling outside; in the final scene she’s a screaming adult dying in the snow. There’s some great symbolism and filmcraft going on in this otherwise rather amateur  production.

Another facet I enjoy is the blood. While the swordplay is laughable, the blood is a shocking reminder of Japan’s obsession with spraying neon-red liquids everywhere. From what I understand, this practice came about due to a flub in an Akira Kurosawa picture where a hose was meant only to produce a small amount of fluid but it accidentally shot a huge spurt. It looked cool, Kurosawa kept it, and spraying blood everywhere like crazy became a trademark of samurai films.

The cartoonish quality of the blood and the physics makes it less shocking or gross and more fun and silly. Lady Snowblood is a dark tale of revenge at its core, but a very good time.

Love Song of Vengeance, on the other hand, feels extremely unnecessary. The first film was a self-contained story with an ambiguous ending but the tale was done, there were no more threads to explore. The four had been killed, Lady Snowblood’s vengeance was complete. Where can you go after that?

Well, the police lock her up, she escapes with the help of some rebels, and she faces off against the government who are part of some conspiracy or other. It’s a plot I had a hard time following. Some rebels have documents that would get some military officials in trouble so those officials decide to employ Lady Snowblood to get them but she works with the rebels instead. Nothing much happens for the majority of the film and at the end there’s a quick bout of violence.

Love Song of Vengeance has a lot of issues. There’s no real driving force behind the narrative, making the viewer less invested in what is happening. The style of the first film is all but gone, going instead for a cleaner and less kinetic, gonzo style. The first felt almost experimental while this one is very by-the-numbers. The camera is steadier, there is no intercutting, no chapters, the theme song isn’t even present. It’s all very arbitrary, a seemingly pointless cash-grab sequel.

It’s still a decent film though: not great, but watchable and provides a few entertaining moments.

If you’re considering watching Lady Snowblood, go for it. It’s a wonderful and unique piece of film, one that left a big impression on me and will definitely hold a coveted spot in my collection. If you enjoyed it as much as I did, the sequel comes off as a curiosity and does provide a few moments reminiscent of its predecessor, but it penultimately fails and is most likely why Snowblood never reached the pop culture success of Lone Wolf and Cub or Zatoichi.

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