Revenge is a very frequent theme in martial arts movies (not coincidentally it’s also a popular theme in westerns, a genre that both influenced and was influenced by Asian sword flicks), and one of the most interesting examples of vengeance with a sword is Lady Snowblood (Shurayuki-hime, Japan, 1973), directed by Toshiya Fujita and based on the manga of the same name written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Kazuo Kamimura.
The plot, like in many revenge stories, is simple. Four criminals murder a teacher and rape his wife. Many years later, her daughter, Yuki Kashima, aka Lady Snowblood, goes on a mission to find and kill the villains. But the movie is much more than that, adding interesting variations both in form (particularly in the nonlinear narrative) and theme (mainly in the unavoidable reflection on the rewards of revenge – or lack thereof).
Yuki is almost a revenge machine, conceived and trained to avenge her parents, but her trajectory, and even her successes, fail to offer satisfaction. One of the four villains is already dead when she starts her mission, killed by her mother (that’s how she ended up in jail, where Yuki was born). The first one she manages to track down is now an old man, drunk and impoverished by a gambling addiction, and killing him allows Yuki to cross one name from the list but doesn’t offer her a real sense of accomplishment, especially because of the unhappiness inflicted onto his daughter. The next villain is found to be dead, generating a sense of frustration that amplifies the sensation of futility that Yuki is already carrying. When she gets to her final adversaries, it’s clear that Yuki only continues with her mission because she doesn’t know how to do anything else, how to be anyone else than the unstoppable Lady Snowblood.
Yuki Kashima is played by Meiko Kaji, the action star from the outlaw biker film Alleycat Rock: Female Boss (1970) and the women prison film Female Convict 701: Scorpion (1972). Aesthetically, Lady Snowblood is clearly a product of the seventies, from the extreme zoom lens movements to the excessive amount of blood gushing from the victims of Yuki’s sword.
Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill was very much influenced by Lady Snowblood and it’s easy to find many elements in common between the two movies, including a female protagonist with a list of names targeted for vengeance, the narrative structured in chapters, some of the training sequences, and even the use of the same theme song Shura no Hana (The Flower of Carnage), sung by Meiko Kaji herself.