Friday, January 8, 2016
#790: Lady Snowblood
Fuck yeah, Criterion!
Obviously one thing Criterion does well is Samurai movies. But they are almost entirely high profile "fancy pants" samurai movies like Yojimbo or Harakiri. Lady Snowblood isn't technically a samurai movie, but it's set during the samurai era, and it is most definitively not fancy pants. This is a film in the tradition of the Blaxploitation films being made concurrently in the US and belongs to the pulpy masses of Japanese films I was initially exposed to by the Wu Tang Clan, though it is far superior to most of those films in technical quality. The film features plenty of spurting blood, an older master training the main character from birth, and a story of revenge that is uniquely Japanese but juicy enough to be at home in any country's genre tradition.
This made its inclusion in the Collection a bit odd to some, since this area of film history is usually covered by genre labels that do a great job with similar movies. But Criterion has never shied away from cult films, whether it's as early as Carnival of Souls or as recent as House. The quality of this film probably falls somewhere in the middle of those two movies, but while I was expecting a fun, tightly constructed thriller from this movie, I didn't expect it to be nearly as freewheeling when it came to filmmaking as it was. There are plenty of stylistic touches here that make the film that much more fun to watch - the photo montages, the freeze frames, the comic, the evocative cuts and poetic framing. The director, Toshiya Fujita, was actually best-known for his films about young people (he also made sex films at Nikkatsu), and these are the only films in this action style that he made. His style is particularly impressive given the film's low budget.
The last thing to mention about Lady Snowblood is the music. "Shura No Hana" is the theme song over the title credits (sung by Lady Snowblood herself), and it's just an incredible pop song. The music throughout the film is excellent, and it ups the film's production value considerably. I'm definitely looking forward to the sequel.
Finally, it's virtually impossible at this point to talk about Lady Snowblood and not mention Tarantino's Kill Bill, which was not so much a remake of the film as it was deeply inspired by it. Like Lady Snowblood, Uma Thurman's character is out for revenge, which is accomplished in a series of battles with the people who wronged her. Tarantino took a lot from the film's style as well, from the use of different mediums and a pop soundtrack to the cartoonish violence and chapter headings. He even overtly acknowledges his source material by including the theme song in the film. But only someone intending to dismiss Tarantino would declare Kill Bill merely a ripoff. As in Tarantino's other films (many of which have similarly borrowed concepts or plotlines), the director brings his own storytelling style and post-modern sensibility to the film. This allows anyone watching either movie to enjoy it on its own terms, and I noted the similarities between Snowblood and Kill Bill, which I saw first, only as a fun connection while watching this film, like hearing a song that RZA had sampled for a classic Wu Tang song.