Sunday, April 8, 2012

Comica Obscura: Lady Snowblood

Lady Snowblood (1973, Toshiya Fujita)

Revenge tales in cinema are, for the most part, strikingly similar when compared. Someone of note is wronged and, convinced that the perpetrators must suffer punishment at all costs, dedicates themselves to tracking down their prey with vicious cunning and deadly seriousness, often circumventing law, which in their eyes is an insufficient tool in ensuring the villains pay their dues. Change any of those ingredients too much, and one is left with something other than a revenge story. Conversely, being too rigid within the parameters of the genre and the result is a movie which brings nothing new to the table, not to mention that the genre itself is not the most fertile ground for remarkably dynamic storytelling. As the old saying goes: 'You've seen 1, you've seen them all.' Director Toshiya Fujita and screenwriters Kazuo Kamimura and Kazuo Koike give it their best to shake things up a bit in the adaptation of Lady Snowblood, one of Japan's most celebrated manga books.

Yuki Kashima (Meiki Kaji), who travels Japan under the name of Lady Snowblood, has a single purpose in life, only one raison d'ĂȘtre that keeps her going is the desire to see four gangsters murdered and sent to the depths of hell where they belong, among them Otora Mikazuki (Kaoru Kusuda), Banzo Takemura (Noburo Makaya) and the pseudo leader, Gishiro Tsukamoto (Eiji Okada). Yuki's story in fact begins even before she was born 20 years ago. It was her mother, father and big brother who, one day while walking to their new home where her father has received a new job as teacher, were accosted by the hoodlums, who mistook the father for somebody else. The father and boy were quickly dispatched, but Yuki's mother was kept for sexual pleasures, until she got her revenge on at least one of them, but by then she had already become pregnant. Giving birth in jail to Yuki, surrounded by her jail mates, her mother's final breath is a wish: that Yuki grow up to become an assassin and destroy the remaining gangsters who ruined their lives.

Toshiya Fujita's Lady Snowblood is one of those films that make some valiant attempts at bringing the unexpected to this sort of story, attempts which end up being the film's major strengths, all the while giving in to some of the familiar tropes of the genres, said qualities being the film's weaker aspects. To begin, let us get the negatives out of the way before giving the film its due credit where deserved.

It is a little bit odd to consider that in this six film marathon, not only were two of the films Japanese, the other being Sword of Vengeance, but each was a cold revenge story set in a period when battles could still be fought with samurai blades as opposed to guns (although Lady Snowblood transpires a much later in history and a couple pistols make brief appearances). Comparisons between the two shall not make up the majority of the current review, but if one were to note yet another similarity with Sword, it is that, for some reason, the movie stops the forward progression of the action when already deep into the running time in order to fill in Yuki's back story. Snowblood thankfully does not perform this little trick multiple times (which was the case in Sword), but it remains a no no in the opinion of this movie reviewer. Unless a director or screenwriter has a very clever, inventive way of inserting the back story at the one-third or halfway point of a movie, then it feels misplaced. Tell that portion of the plot before sending the viewer into the thrust of the action. Do not engage the heart of the journey, only to bring all that momentum to a standstill in order to divulge some historical information. It is out of fear that an audience might grow impatient if the actor or actress playing the protagonist is not shown for many scenes in the case of a movie where the back story involves episodes from the character's childhood? The real reason remains a mystery.

Lady Snowblood also has a great love for pointless narration. Actually, it is not true narration given that the booming male voice that comes and goes throughout the film does not reveal or describe a whole lot of the story. Rather, it mostly wants to convey Yuki's emotional and psychological state at the time of the unfolding events. This is no better than regurgitating exactly what it transpiring on screen, since the actress at the centre of everyone's attention should be strong enough to convey that important information through her dialogue, her face and her actions. Of course, when a performance is as cold as Meiki Kaji's, maybe some narrated explanations about who she is and how she is feeling becomes a requirement. It is not that the actress gives a poor performance per say, only that there really is not much there for the viewer to latch on to. It is calculated to the tiniest detail in order for Yuki Kashima to come across as very fitting of her nickname, Lady Snowblood. Maybe if there was something else about her it would be easier to empathize with the character. As it stands, we are but watching what amounts to a machine go after a series of villains. There are fleeting moments when she hints at something else behind the cold facade, and those moments are much appreciated, but overall the protagonist is simply not very interesting. She looks amazing though, and by that it is not her natural good looks which are being referred to (although even in that respect she does look amazing) but the costumes and makeup, which lend her a geisha-like aura, what with the incredibly pale face and perfect fitting, handsomely designed kimono. She is a Luc Besson heroine, only she speaks Japanese and kills with a blade instead of a gun.

Where the film earns critical points for doing things well is in fact in the script, which does lift it slightly above the average vengeance story. For one, the handling of the villains Yuki is after is very smart and in some cases unexpected. The first of her victims, Banzo Takemura, is a perfect. One might be forgiven for predicting that all of these targets have gone on to become wealthy pigs, still stamping on innocent folk to preserve their status as members of the feared elite, but that is not what has happened, not at all in the case of Banzo. This is a man who has a beautiful daughter who has to whore herself out so that she and her father can pay the bills. So as to not anger and shame Banzo, she pretends to be a basket merchant. Banzo loves his daughter, but since falling on hard times has given in to other kinds of sin (other than rape, that is): he is a severe alcoholic and wastes too much money in the gambling rooms in town. So rather than finding someone who is despicable because he has profited from his previous malice, Yuki finds someone who is despicable because he is down in the dumps, as if already beginning to pay for his sins. Far be it from Yuki to show him pity of course...

The script continues to impress and keep the proceedings pertinent by revealing twists along the way. Immediately after dispatching Banzo, Yuki learns from her contacts that the leader of the thugs, Gishiro, is already dead, sending a shock wave through her. Here is one bastard she will not be able to kill by her own hands. What follows shall not be revealed in this review, but the story of what happened to Gishiro does not end there, leading down a path which adds a rich texture to the story. What's more, the film ensures that multiple characters have important emotional stakes. A writer and cartoon artist enters the fray at the midpoint whose links to Yuki's mission are far more critical than she originally imagines, and, as icing on the cake, Banzo's daughter goes for revenge once she learns of what Yuki did to him. The story has a nice amount of surprises that are honestly hard to predict. Director Fujita shows off the excellent direction, in particular during the finale, which, in yet another unexpected turn, occurs at a English-Victorian costume ball.

Lady Snowblood is no perfect film, and in some respects it embraces rather annoying contrivances, but simultaneously manages to overcome said deficiencies with some creativity in areas where one would least expect, coming from a revenge movie.

Done here? Find out if how many limbs Bill has left after escaping Lady Snowblood's wrath. at his Movie Emporium.

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