As cinema corrective to outsiders’ picture of submissive Japanese womanhood, Japan Society offers thirteen features in “Mad, Bad . . . & Dangerous To Know.” Collectively subtitled “Three Untamed Beauties,” for Ayako Wakao, Mariko Okada and Meiko Kaji, these ‘60s-early ‘70s studies in revenge, crime, blood, shock schlock, sadism and obsessive adulterous aberrant sex show up the generally unsuspected intertwined influences, beyond Kurosawa, of that nation’s cinema and ours.
Spider-tattooed Wakao (Tattoo aka The Spider Tattoo) is series poster girl, although white-kimonoed blood-splattered Kaji is as visually arresting. Of interest (and surprise) to America’s largest moviegoing demographic are her Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld/Shura-yuki-hime and Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance/Shura-yuki-hime: Urami Renga. Directed by Toshiya Fujita in consecutive years, they are from a manga and, particularly the 1973 former, are sources for Kill Bill in story, structure, chapter divisions, music and artsy violence and grotesquerie.
Whether Tarantino improved upon these originals is debatable, for though more over-the-top than Truffaut’s 1968 Hitchcock homage, LS:BN is no less an applaudable theater experience than The Bride Wore Black. Unlike most current kick-butt screen females who battle underworld nasties, Moreau, Kaji and Thurman are out to settle family scores. A narrative voice and animation inserts indicate some Snowblood feminine compassion while pointing to social oppression in a 1868-1912 Meiji restoration Japan on the brink of Western luxury, corruption and conquest as fukoku Kyohei, “enrich the country and strengthen the military.”
Buddhist netherworld-hell hath indeed no fury like a woman. Essential to the rivers, pools and geysers of blood and to the contrast of darkness to Kaji’s pale beauty and kimonos as immaculate as her hairdo, both Snowbloods are in fine prints, with “live” subtitles, i.e., computer-generated separately. That the second film, Love Song, does not match its predecessor only shows that sequels are seldom equal. It is still a good view, however, not bothering to explain the heroine’s survival while getting her involved in revolutionary activities against an exploitative power-mad government and its secret police director Kikui (Shin Kishida), through a brothers’ feud between anarchist Ransui and bitter doctor Shusuke Tokunaga (Juzo Itami, Yoshio Harada).
“Shu” might have been love interest, but Snowblood must remain the lone assassin. Her persona softened a tad in social awareness and competing for full attention with the brothers, results in a less intense film compared to the screen explosion of the demonic netherworld first installment.
More concerned with her signing career -- currently in comeback -- and upset about treatment from Toho Company studios, Kaji subsequently dismissed her other, later films as trash. Her Snowblood Yuki Kashima is born during a blizzard (and ends in the white stuff), in the women’s prison where dying mother Sayo (Miyoko Akaza) entrusts the baby to midwife Otora (Kaoru Kusuda) with insistence that the daughter’s life be dedicated to vengeance. Using politically sensitive white clothing as an excuse, three thugs led and goaded on by the woman Okono (Sanae Nakahara) had slaughtered Sayo’s husband and son and raped her over three days.
Auntie Otora spirits the child to Reverend/Priest Dokai, a surrogate father who schools her in toughness, heartlessness and martial arts. There are thankfully hardly any air pirouettes and sonic fists, her grown woman’s weapon of choice being a backhand sword razor-sharp enough to split a hanging corpse across the midsection. There is a nod to sociopolitics in that her enemies prey on the helpless poor and the specific four she seeks have, among other things, scammed a village of money raised to buy its young men draft exemptions. One of the four drowned smuggling opium, so in theory three remain.
Implacable even with the villain father of an innocent young woman, Lady Snowblood is followed about by newspaperman Ryûrei Ashio (Toshio Kurosawa), who chronicles her adventures and hides a dark secret of his own. Massed bad guys surround her, coming on foolishly one at a time like Red Indians in old cowboy flicks. But the resolution is reduced to single combat, she in classic kimono even the more striking at the decadent charity ball among maskers in eighteenth-century European dress. Final justice is symbolic, blood on the red-and-white Imperial flag.
Otherwise existing only in German-subtitled versions and thus barely screened here, the two Snowbloods are excellent but, unfortunately, unknown.
(Released by Toho Company; not rated by MPAA.)