March 5, 2008
CINE 466 – Desser
A Pulpy, yet Meaningful Samurai Film without the Samurai
At first, assigning films into specific genres may seem a simple task. Westerns take place in the American West, most often in the deserts of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, or California; gangster movies focus on the lives of one or more member of an organized crime ring; war movies depict the lives of soldiers on the battlefield during a specific conflict. Following this logic, samurai films ought to showcase samurais. Yet not all of them do, Lady Snowblood included. Fujita Toshiya’s 1973 Toho classic proves that no one specific condition is necessary to qualify a given work for entry into a genre. Instead of judging a movie by just one characteristic, such as the presence or lack of Japanese feudal retainers, a critic must remember that genres contain a whole matrix of common traits. To qualify for the samurai genre, a picture must exhibit several, but not all, of these ingredients.
But what are these ingredients? The firmest requirement is that the film be jidai-geki – set in the past, when the feudal system dictated that daimyos possessing vast quantities of land awarded warriors a fief in exchange for defending the lord’s territory. Most samurai films are set in the Edo era (1603-1868), but some take place in the Sengoku period between 1482 and 1573, as well as the Azuchi-Momoyama period between 1573 and 1600. Surprisingly, few samurai films have been made to explore the Kakamura era (1185-1333), when the samurai caste was established. In addition, most films in the genre thrill audiences with action sequences, usually swordfights, perpetrated by top-knotted samurai wearing straw sandals. Many employed samurai wear clean clothes prominently displaying the clan crest, personalized battle armor, and two swords – a long one for fighting and a short one out of tradition. They may shave the hair surrounding their topknot. Unemployed samurai, or ronin, however, oftentimes carry only one weapon, wear dirty clothes, and allow the hair around their topknot to grow out.
Patrick Galloway’s Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves points out the recurring theme of samurai honor, or bushido, which upholds the “concept of giri, or obligation . . . to the daimyo” which necessitated that “samurai [be] prepared to die at a moment’s notice for the sake of giri and was encouraged to keep death foremost in his mind at all times” (14). Many samurai films center around one’s conflict between his duty to honor his master and his own personal opinions (ninjo). The dethronement of a daimyo for any reason often leads in one of three directions for the ronin: suicide (seppuku), justified vengeance, or wandering the countryside in search of other work, all of which were preferable over a dishonorable sentence of execution. These narratives of fighting to maintain or restore one’s honor frequently shimmer with pictorialism, each frame containing an artful balance and vividness worthy of a painting or a photograph. For a film category so marked by its brutality, its male camaraderie at the expense of women’s perspective, and its glorification of murder, samurai films are shocking in their sheer visual beauty.
With the iconography and common themes of the genre in mind, one can begin to analyze Lady Snowblood and objectively affirm its status as a samurai film. While one must concede that it features a female protagonist from a low caste instead of a male protagonist from the elite class, the movie serves up plenty of swordplay and focuses on the theme of revenge in the form of murder as a way to compensate for the wrongdoings of others. Yuki, the title character, was a child born and bred for vengeance. Like disillusioned ronin, who take it upon themselves to avenge the death of their clan leader, Yuki seeks to find and kill the gang who assassinated her father and raped her mother. They have sullied her family’s honor and forced the mother into captivity. Like employed samurai, her robes are clean and white, but her employer is fate itself. Yet her robe displays no crest, and she carries only one sword, unlike the dual-sworded ronin in Three Outlaw Samurai, who also participate in a kind of glorified male companionship completely absent from Snowblood. Yet one sword does the trick for Yuki, as one by one, she aptly slices her enemies literally to pieces in an orgy of gory violence similar to Lone Wolf and Cub.
The graphic sex and bared breasts during rape scenes in Lady Snowblood also remind one of Lone Wolf and Cub. Both movies contain instances of semi-consensual sex, although for nefarious reasons. Bandits force Lone Wolf into intercourse with a prostitute, but they seem to enjoy it; Yuki’s mother intentionally becomes pregnant by having sex with as many prison guards and wardens as possible in order to bear the child who will restore her honor. Are these sex scenes gratuitous? I would argue not, due to the grittiness the sex scenes lend the films.
Along with Lone Wolf and Cub, Lady Snowblood belongs to the chambara subgenre of samurai films, which was named after the Japanese onomatopoeic term for the sound of clanging swords. Pulpy Chambara flicks compare to the American Action movie genre, except Lady Snowblood takes place between 1874 and 1894 in the Meiji era, while Action movies are typically set in the year of their production (1980s to the present). Both the chambara and the Action movie, to many high-brow critics’ chagrin, contain a surplus of violence and seemingly fit into a set formula of events. Among these naysaying writers is Joan Mellen, who declared in The Waves at Genji’s Door that “whereas the jidai-geki is often a serious work of art, . . . the chambara rarely transcends American Western ‘B’ film conventions,” making chambara “unabashedly escapist entertainments” that “do not pursue meaning and virtually concede their vacuity,” as opposed to jidai-geki, which “always have significant intent” (113). Mellen asserts here that chambara pictures should not interest scholars and equate to pointless mind candy. Evidently, no amount of clever camerawork or visual motifs in Lady Snowblood or Lone Wolf and Cub strikes Mellen as experimental or innovative. Such brash generalizations deserve brash rebuttals, and Patrick Galloway offers one for the likes of Joan Mellen: “Some Japanese film scholars tend to sneer at chambara, using it as a term of derision . . . You could say one of the themes of this book is ‘Chambara rocks!’” (12). Due to Lady Snowblood’s adept variation of long takes and quick cuts, bold pictorial imagery, and use of subtle symbolism, this paper refutes Mellen’s derogatory claim that cites stereotypes as evidence, and it sides with Galloway’s more open-minded sentiment.
The very first scene – even the first three shots – demonstrates the capability of the low-brow chambara films to take lessons from the master of the occasional long take and the mobile camera, Kurosawa Akira, and to use the techniques to produce true art.
- Shot 1. 0:16 – The opening shot of the film begins with a diagonal shot of an imposing grid of prison bars. The camera tracks forward alongside prison cells arranged in a tunnel formation..
o 0:26-0:33 – Still tracking forward, the camera gradually pans to the right to show clad-in-red prisoners holding onto their prison bars.
o 0:33-0:39 – The camera is fully perpendicular to the prisoners, and now tracks from right-to-left, completely parallel with the oppressive bars.
- 0:39-0:50 – A mother with her newborn and several friends enters the screen; cut.
- Shot 2. 0:50-0:54 – The crying baby appears in a medium shot, and the camera quickly zooms into her crying eyes; cut.
- Shot 3. 0:54-1:25 – The camera cuts directly from the baby’s face to a shot looking out the barred prison from inside. Snowflakes pour down in hordes. The camera pans to the right to show a woman looking concerned; pans more and tilts up to show another woman; pans more and shows another woman from a low angle; pans more and tilts and cranes down to show yet another woman.
- 1:25-1:37 – The camera stops panning when after it tilts up and reaches the heaving pregnant woman, Yuki’s mother, and lingers on her sweaty face.
The first three takes, then, last 34, 4, and 43 seconds, respectively. Less than two minutes into the film, Fujita and his cinematographer have already demonstrated their mastery of the mobile camera due to their ability to combine several different effects simultaneously. They establish early on that the film’s audience should expect, at any given time, for any combination of panning, tilting, tracking, craning, and zooming to occur at the same time. Fujita also manages this nice variation of take length and moving camera techniques throughout the movie. He also stays true to the claim to fame of samurai film directors and provides some striking pictorialism early on. The color contrast of arms of red robes around dark metal, coupled with the menacing presence of a thick grid of prison bars, achieves a memorable and unmistakably haunting and oppressive mise-en-scène right in the first shot.
Fujita also uses another effective and affective technique, which I will call “flash cutting” for the lack of a better term. In flash cutting, the editor splices together many medium-to-extreme-close up shots of two or more characters at a frequent rate – often cutting more than once per second. The end result is a brief, exhilarating sequence of shots flashing between one another that builds dramatic tension. This occurs in Lady Snowblood from 1:22:35 to 1:22:55, after Ryu the journalist confesses to Yuki that Gishiro, the head of the gang who killed her father and raped her mother 20 years before, is his father. Listing the entire shot sequence would be too tedious, but Fujita racks up a grand total of 31 shots in 20 seconds. Yuki’s face appears onscreen 11 times, Ryu’s face appears 7 times, Yuki’s mother is shown 4 times, the body Yuki chopped in half appears 3 times, a photograph of Gishiro pops up once, and blood-flooded ocean waves and the chopped flowers at Gishiro’s grave both come up multiple times. This analytical editing demonstrates the torrent of thoughts zigzagging through Yuki’s mind in her moment of realization. Flash cutting is not exactly unique to Lady Snowbird – it also appears in Lone Wolf and Cub when an old man watches Lone Wolf fight – but I would argue that Fujita’s use of flash cutting to show Yuki’s fragmented mental state is more clever and meaningful than Misumi Kenji’s use of the technique to amplify the excitement of a fight scene.
Despite its reputation as a part of a new wave of early 1970s pulp cinema, Lady Snowblood is not without traditional Japanese aesthetics and symbolism. Several moments narrating Yuki’s and her mother’s past show Fujita’s nod to the tradition of the kamishibai, a Japanese narrative convention involving a speaker displaying artwork and telling a story about it. The artwork in Lady Snowblood is Ryu’s “nonfiction” graphic novel about Yuki. And, proving Joan Mellen wrong about the vacuity of chambara films, Yuki forces Gishiro to fall over a balcony during a Japanese and American diplomats ball. On his way to the floor, he grabs hold of a hanging Japanese flag. His tattered corpse spatters blood all over the flag. One can interpret this as Japan’s disdain for men involved in shady business dealings who, literally and figuratively, take Japan down with them and dirty their nation with their filth. This much-repeated theme in Japanese samurai cinema also shows up in Yojimbo, In which Sanjuro’s slaughter of dozens of men is justified by the fact that they were all gamblers, in Three Outlaw Samurai, in which, a trio of furious ronin go on a killing rampage as a way to protest the lord’s mistreatment of his village’s farmers, and in countless other samurai films. Yet I have never before seen the Japanese flag employed so effectively as a way to demonstrate the plight of Japan at the hands of the power-hungry.
If Joan Mellen does not appreciate the clever techniques of chambara films, that is her own loss. Her inability to observe them closely objectively disqualifies her from appreciating chambara directors’ skillful use of long takes with smooth moving cameras, intense revelatory moments of flash cutting, and fine artistic compositions. The samurai genre would be at a great loss without the contribution of Lady Snowblood and films like it.
Fujita, Toshiya, dir. Lady Snowblood.. Perf. Kaji Meiko. 1973. DVD. AnimeEigo, 2004.
Galloway, Patrick. Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2005.
Mellen, Joan. The Waves at Genji’s Door: Japan through its Cinema. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976.