When it comes to film, two of Japan’s most common genre outputs are the Samurai Film and the Ghost Story. At first glance (okay, and many sequential glances), Toshiya Fujita’s LADY SNOWBLOOD (1973) fits snugly in the Samurai category, following a stunning female assassin as she travels through late 19th century Japan, attempting to avenge her mother’s death. After looking closer at our heroine Yuki Kashima’s/The Lady Snowblood’s trial, however, it becomes clear that the film also works as a metaphorical ghost story, successfully blending the two prominent genres in an interesting and symbiotic way. Like a ghost whose unrest prevents it from passing on, Lady Snowblood’s entire existence is tied to a single piece of Unfinished Business: her quest for revenge. But whereas a phantom moves from this life to the next, Yuki’s eventual success actually gives her life for the first time, ending her state of limbo.
LADY SNOWBLOOD begins at a moment when the veil between life and death is already fluid, allowing spirits to move back and forth. While in prison, Yuki’s mother Sayo dies during childbirth, her own spirit cohabitating with her daughter’s long enough to witness the child’s first mortal breaths. The tragic experience also serves as an introduction of death and bloodshed, as emphasized by the attending women’s dress – each is clothed in deep-crimson garments, preventing the newborn Yuki from having even a second of innocence. A pure white snow may fall just outside the prison walls, but it remains out of reach for the women inside.
This is especially true for Yuki, as her life is never able to be her own. In a lot of ways, Lady Snowblood’s birth happened years before with the murder of Sayo’s husband and their young son. Even though Yuki was years away from entering this world, this act of cruelty was already shaping her. One of the most unique elements of LADY SNOWBLOOD is how the character’s quest isn’t that of personal revenge, but inherited revenge. This eliminates even the smallest semblance of agency from the equation. Lady Snowblood is the physical embodiment of Sayo’s sorrow and rage, her final attempt to avenge her family’s death from beyond the grave.
After her family is murdered, Sayo dedicates her life to tracking down the four individuals responsible. Once she kills the first, (in an exhilarating, black and white sequence that smashes to color as blade penetrates flesh) Sayo is captured, convicted and placed in prison, where she immediately begins plotting her escape. In a sense, anyways. Her plan is to become pregnant so her offspring can continue her life’s work, thus allowing for a metaphorical escape. And when you’re dealing with revenge, it turns out that this is good enough.
But Sayo’s plan succeeded – she created a ghost, a monster, a killing machine. An Asura demon. Indeed, monitoring Yuki’s ghost-like qualities is one of the many joys of watching the film. Not only does her makeup make her look paler than any other characters (with the exception of corpses), but she often seems to be immaterial and impossible to strike with any weapon.
Although LADY SNOWBLOOD may act as a quasi-ghost story, it excels because of the humanity it includes. Despite its visual flourishes and exhilarating scenes of violence/bloodshed, the film acknowledges the sorrow inherent in Yuki’s life. And while Yuki was born in death, created to fulfill a singular task, the film manages to chronicle her emotional birth. With every successful act of revenge, Lady Snowblood’s life comes closer to an end while Yuki has to learn what it means to be human.
And it shakes her – the only times we see her ghostly, stoic expression falter is when she believes that her avenging blade might not find her intended targets. In one such scene, she tears through a rural home, frantically searching for the woman she’s there to kill. The woman is fully aware of the demon that haunts her, and attempts to hang herself rather than meet it face to face. It’s a huge moment of relief (for her and the audience) when Snowblood slices the woman in two before the noose robs her of her revenge.
Similarly, Lady Snowblood’s disappointment is clear when another of her targets, the group’s leader Gishirō Tsukamoto, is revealed to have died years before. While visiting his grave, she hacks the adorning flowers in two, as though trying to reach him in the afterlife. And it works, believe it or not. It turns out he’d only faked his death and Snowblood rushes to his location as soon as she can. (If only she had the ghost-like ability to teleport!) Ghosts don’t take pity on the living, and there’s only one possible outcome when she arrives at the masquerade ball to finish her mother’s quest – death. The scene is one of the film’s most visually thrilling, a kaleidoscope of primary colors and blood. It’s worth noting that Lady Snowblood is injured more in this fight than any others, as though Gishirō’s resurrection gave him the ability to successfully fight this avenging ghost. In the end, he’s unable to escape his own destiny to perish at the hand of the ghost he summoned.
At the end of a ghost story, the specter leaves the survivors in peace, finally able to move on to a state of supposed tranquility. LADY SNOWBLOOD offers an inverse of this trope, where those who come in contact with the ghost are killed, while the ghost takes her place among the living. Whether or not the filmmakers understood the poetry of the Lady Snowblood’s final moments is anyone’s guess, but they were able to create a Samurai film that is as emotionally resonant as it is thrilling.
LADY SNOWBLOOD ends with Snowblood’s death and Yuki’s birth, as she’s finally able to live a life of her own. She lets out a guttural scream of pain and clenches a handful of fresh snow as though it’s her mother’s comforting hand. Her Business is Unfinished no more.