Lady Snowblood started her life as the heroine of a manga written by Kazuo Koike in the early 70s, before being incarnated by the actress Meiko Kaji in two film adaptations of the story, Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld (1973) and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), both directed by Toshiya Fujita. Strong from her turns as the leader of a delinquent girl gang in the Stray Cat Rock series (1970-71), and as a cold-blooded avenger in the Female Convict Scorpion films (1972-73), the enigmatic, steely-eyed Kaji was the perfect choice to play a 19th-century assassin out to avenge the rape of her mother and the murder of her family.
Blizzard from the Netherworld opens in Tokyo Prison in Meiji 7 (1874). A woman gives birth as snow falls outside, announcing to her newborn daughter, barely out of the womb: ‘Yuki, you were born for vengeance, a child of the netherworld.’ The film cuts to the now adult Yuki dispatching a local criminal in an eerily quiet, snowy street. As she squares up to the gangster’s henchmen, snow falls from a nearby roof, landing inches from their feet, an act of aggression that suggests that Yuki is almost supernaturally in control. As we are repeatedly told throughout the film, Yuki is not quite human; her name means ‘snow’ in Japanese, and she is an elemental force, unstoppable and indestructible. Conjured up from hell to carry out her mother’s revenge, she is the embodiment of an idée fixe.
Her full name, ‘Shurayuki-hime’, is a pun on the Japanese for Snow White, ‘Shirayuki-hime’. The Kanji character ‘Shura’ means ‘the netherworld’, a place of carnage, and ‘hime’ is ‘princess’. In the Grimm fairy tale, Snow White is also conjured up by her mother out of blood and snow: the queen, having pricked her finger and seen the drop of blood on the snow, wishes for a daughter that would have ‘skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony’. Just like Lady Snowblood, Snow White is plucked from her mother’s fancy, and fashioned out of the elements that the queen can see around her. This quasi-magical birth conveys all the mystery of procreation, and the combination of blood and snow clearly has sexual undertones, with the hot red flow fertilising white water; a mixing of fluids, but also of states, liquid and solid, life and death, to create a new being. No wonder that the combination of blood and snow, so over-used, still remains powerful: it is the image of primordial creation.
Or destruction, in the case of Yuki. As she walks away from the first scene of carnage, the narrator explains: ‘People say that what cleanses this world of decay is not pure white snow but snow that is stained fiery red: the snow of the netherworld.’ It is a striking inversion of the symbolism of snow, and the image is brilliantly paradoxical. True to her name, Yuki is a contradictory being: a demonic creature hell-bent on destruction, but pure in her single-minded purpose of revenge.
Visually, the film makes much of the white/red contrast, starting with the female convicts in their red prison uniforms surrounding the newborn Yuki, wrapped in a white cloth. Yuki wears a white kimono for most of the film, the perfect backdrop for the Grand Guignol sprays of blood that regularly gush out of her victims. White clothes are in fact the starting point of the whole story: the husband of Yuki’s mother was killed because he was wearing white, and for that reason was mistakenly taken for a hated government official.
Naturally, the film ends with more blood and snow. Having accomplished the final act of her revenge, Yuki staggers out in the snow, wounded, her white kimono stained with blood. Clearly the welding of these elements - snow, blood, women and revenge - exerts a strange attraction, with that final scene in particular sowing seeds in the imagination of other filmmakers. Norifumi Suzuki’s Sex and Fury, released in 1973, was seemingly influenced by Blizzard from the Netherworld, although it upped the quotient of nudity, violence and sheer lunacy. Suzuki’s film similarly ends with the heroine stumbling out in the snow, her bare tattooed chest covered in blood, which she cleans with a handful of snow before walking away in the darkness as the snowflakes turn into hanafuda gambling cards. No such inventive re-interpretation in Tarantino’s Kill Bill 1 (2003), which simply regurgitated its cinematic precedents like a lesson well learnt. Park Chan-wook, on the other hand, ended his Lady Vengeance (2005) with the heroine being given tofu by her daughter; as they embrace in the snow, the white substances inside and around her offer the promise of cleansing and renewal. The snow holds no such promise at the end of Blizzard from the Netherworld, unique in its complex reading of snow; herself the purifier, Yuki is beyond cleansing and can only carry on down her path of revenge, even as all her enemies lie dead.