Film often attempts to present the ideal killing machine. Action movies are filled with buff, burly men struggling through immediate danger for the good of a justifiable cause. They are good-hearted and skilled but are not convincing. Why is that? Perhaps it is because there is no real belief in them as characters or people. After all, their aims are so simple-minded and are effectively pointless. If that is the case, then why not lean into this more? Take Lady Snowblood as a prime example of this, whose leading character is born out of revenge. Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji) is born with the purpose of, eventually, bringing justice to the death of her mother, and that is all we need.
When action and narrative are so intertwined, it is hard not to enjoy where the story will take us. Director Toshiya Fujita is keen to engage with the simplicity of the writing, as it leaves him more time to kill off characters or build up his exciting set pieces. His film looks incredible, and although Criterion has done a crummy job in restoring it, other versions are thankfully available. They capture the colour scheme far better, the flair and lighting is not scaled down as it is on the Criterion release. Still, at its core, there is much to enjoy about Lady Snowblood. Wonderful sequences that show off Fujita’s eye for action and Kaji’s ability to portray them with conviction are frequent, fast and ultimately enjoyable.
Of course, the trade-off to such an inviting palette of blasé storylines and conniving villains is that the titular character is of little interest. She is there to kill or be killed, and that she does. Lady Snowblood is preferable to many of the action films of the modern era, mainly due to its understanding that its story is not of much interest. But there is room for growth, and there is a question looming about the reaction to shunning a story to such an extent. Clarity cuts through the slower, padded moments, but are they not the most integral piece of the action film? We must have breaks between the butchering of so many villains, or we are just watching senseless violence. Lady Snowblood is lucky that its tale of revenge justifies this, and that its camerawork is effective in displaying the lingering guilt but overwhelming righteousness of its leading character.
If you thought the sword-wielding spectacles of Kill Bill were impressive, then you’ll surely love the film that inspired it. Lady Snowblood is gutsy, gory and gets to the point of its simplistic, engaging story. Why have all these bells and whistles if you are not going to use them? With that in mind, Fujita removes them, for he has no need for these moments. He powers on through with a desire to create a piece of film where the story is still the background fodder. It is something he has in common with the western action epics. What sets him apart, though, is an understanding that the average audience is there to be entertained. We do not look to Commando for enlightenment, nor should we for Lady Snowblood. Understanding its genre allows it to excel far beyond anything imaginable, setting the bar for brutality in cinema.