Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Renegade April: Shurayukihime / Lady Snowblood (1973)

Lady Snowblood: Yuki, born in a womens’ prison in 1870’s Japan, inherits a cursed legacy: her father was murdered in a set-up by some village crooks, and her mother was raped and ultimately enslaved to them. Yuki’s mother landed in prison after double-crossing her keepers, and there, she pronounces Yuki’s destiny: to be released from prison and carry out a mission of vengeance that her mother couldn’t complete. Yuki is placed in the care of a local warrior priest, who hones her into a weapon. She enlists the help of a bandit leader, and begins searching out the murderers of her mother’s husband, slipping into their lives one by one and dispatching them. She carries a wagasa (Japenese paper umbrella) concealing her sword, and she always wears a white robe, presumably for purity. She is a creature of absolute purpose.

If you’ve heard people talking about Tarantino being annoyingly derivative, and you don’t know what they’re talking about, then it’s time for you to see Lady Snowblood. The Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004) quote from Lady Snowblood so mercilessly, it makes me think maybe Tarantino spent his whole youth watching and rewatching this one film. O-ren Ishii is a visual copy of Yuki, and Yuki’s drive for revenge is echoed by both O-Ren Ishii’s backstory and the Bride’s own wrathful mission. Lady Snowblood didn’t have Tarantino’s postmodern audacity or massive cinematic ambition, but it tells a more streamlined story with those samurai tropes. As a member of the younger generation, I don’t think I was able to appreciate them until I saw them in Yuki’s tale.

If you want to understand the spirit of Lady Snowblood, you shouldn't compare it to Kill Bill, but rather to a more recent movie that also inherits its spirit. This is Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005), whose protagonist, Lee Geum-Ja, is kindred spirit to Yuki. This movie references some of the same elements: the show-downs in falling snow, the prison community as support and sanctuary. However, unlike The Bride, Geum-Ja is a quiet, determined murderer, not interested in confrontation or spectacle. Whether it's the way she was played, or the way she was written, The Bride is always putting herself on display, stepping into the center of a party, announcing her presence, and initiating a whirlwind of destruction. Yuki and Geum-Ja, on the other hand, are characters who linger in the background, gathering resources and waiting for the right moment to strike.

For Yuki, this dangerous lifestyle isn't just a hobby... it's her nature, given to her at birth and carried to the grave. Like her blade, she was forged for a single use, a purpose that's not even her own... as her mother proclaims over the newborn, she was born for vengeance. She never seems to question this directive, even in the flashbacks we see of her youth: her assigned mission is instilled in her by her guardian, and all of her training guides her toward it. This purpose, inherited from a higher authority, is revenge for an injustice perpetrated upon a man she's never met and a woman whom she wouldn't have recognized.

Yuki's sword-carrying wagasa is an apt metaphor for her own nature as a character. She is fashioned and sculpted as a courtesan, and time after time her enemies simply dismiss her as a helpless woman. In some cases, it allows her to dispatch them; in other cases (as with Matsuemon's henchmen) it almost gets them into trouble, and they're only saved by her lack of interest in killing them.

One of the great accomplishments of Lady Snowblood is that it condenses so much story into a 90-minute runtime. This becomes apparently whenever you read a synopsis online… they spend two paragraphs describing the backstory, and then seem to notice that they haven’t even started describing the main plotline of the movie yet. Despite the extensive narrative ground that Lady Snowblood covers, it never feels rushed; each fragment of personal history seems to fall into place, and each of Yuki’s actions is given its time to unfold.

Within this broken but strong narrative line, we encounter a number of micro-stories: the tale of Yuki’s father’s death and her mother’s road to prison, her mother’s wrath-fueled desire to have a child, Yuki’s difficult young life as she’s honed into a weapon of revenge, and the small, troubling snapshot of Banzo’s relationship with his daughter, fraught as it is with self-abuse and denial. These are all stories of broken families and hardships inflicted by sin, and what emerges is a sense that Yuki has entered a world of misfortune, endlessly perpetrated by the original crimes of the four villains: their cruel dishonesty to the peasants of a small town, their murder of an innocent schoolteacher and his son, and their rape and enslavement of his wife. These heartless acts have, in effect, opened a Pandora’s box of troubles, from Sanyo’s imprisonment to Gishiro’s criminal network (no doubt initially funded by the money swindled out of the peasants). This world contains Ashio, alienated by his father’s unscrupulous activity, and Kobue, Banzo’s daughter, working as a prostitute to support her degenerate father.

These troubles form a small, irresolvable Gordian knot (I know this is the second mythological reference in about three sentences… sorry) entangled by the parents and binding their children: Kobue to a life of dishonesty and prostitution, and Ashio to alienation and resentment of his father, who he has supposedly abandoned, but who still seems to hold a place of authority for him. Thus, the revenge tale of Lady Snowblood is wrapped around a family saga of sin and redemption, and only Yuki, born and raised with the express purpose of exacting vengeance, is able to release all the bonds of misfortune by ending the lives of the sinners. She is the sword that cuts the knot, abandoning redemption for retribution and catalyzing the martyrdom of the children for their parents’ mistakes.

Yuki is a renegade, in a sense. She’s the x-factor that none of her adversaries were able to prepare for, and she’s the razor’s edge that cuts through the poisonous legacy of the previous generation. However, in a broader sense, she is pre-ordained, a pure mechanism for karmic redemption, only human as an afterthought. Her inherited wrath and unflinching, inhuman sense of purpose are her markers of rebellion, not against norms or government, but against the established order, rotten to the core, which finally needs to be cut off.

How did a director turn something so sweeping into such a lucid, concise film? It’s hard to say, but it’s certainly an accomplishment of filmmaking, reaching beyond the interesting tricks and into the much more complex realms of pacing, layering, and implication.

Renegade Profile

Daughter of a family destroyed by corruption; born with the sole purpose of carrying out bloody (like, SUPER-bloody) vengeance upon the criminals who murdered her father and enslaved her mother, she follows her netherworldly nature and hunts down her targets relentlessly

  • Murder in the first degree (4 counts)
  • Murder in the second degree (like, 50 counts)
  • Consorting with known fugitives
  • Carrying a concealed weapon without a permit

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