“The manga that inspired Kill Bill” — well, that’s what they say in the introduction, so that must be true. It might be true, mind you, but reading those two thick volumes that kick off the “Kana Sensei” collection, the connection between the two is tenuous at best, and could be summed up with this single phrase : “a woman sets on exacting vengeance on five men, and starts killing them one by one”. No doubt that Quentin Tarantino (who boasts a largely film-based culture, and therefore relied more on the movie-version of Lady Snowblood than on the original manga) also found inspiration with other sources, this filiation ends up being more marketing pitch than tangible fact.
Thus, Lady Snowblood follows a now rather classic progression, alternating between two storylines : on one hand, following the vengeance itself unfold, and on the other, retracing the footsteps of this young woman and the circumstances that led to her transformation into a cold-blooded killer. Nothing too surprising here, since this story is written by Koike Kazuo, who also penned Lone Wold and Cub among others, and falls into the great tradition of the chanbara genre with its rônin looking for redemption.
Along with this (period) interest for the chanbara, there is the influence of the second wave of pinku eiga in Japan, which kicks off in 1971, and will provide a steady flow of vengeance-driven beauties. Since Shura-yuki Hime starts getting published in 1972 in the pages of the Japanese edition of Playboy, it won’t come as a surprise to find a hefty dose of the Eros-Thanatos duo in action, the superb action scenes bringing some distraction from what could sometimes appear to be a catalog of the libertine practices in the end-of-19th-century Japan.
But beyond the period influences and the genre conventions, Lady Snowblood is a masterful narrative, where the elegance of the line (capturing here a graceful neck, there the exquisite beauty of a pose) echoes the poetry of the chapter titles. There may be some nostalgia there, as this story is set during a period situated midway between the end of the Edo era (a medieval period ending in 1848) and the forthcoming modernity which will be crowned with the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) — and the outright entrance on the international scene among the great powers of the world. This is a time of major change in the Japanese society, as the cast system has been abolished in 1871, and as a new governing (administrative) class is progressively taking over from the old nobility.
This tension between the Japan of traditions, and what it is about to become, between yesterday and tomorrow, is fully embodied by Yuki herself. Relying on the lower people, for whom living conditions have not changed and which remains attached to the past, she strikes without pity those who are profiting from the “new order”. And even if she sometimes end up fighting directly against the abuses brought by this modernity (such as in the photographer episode), she does not shy from using it to her advantage, be it for the exotic appeal of Western underwear or resorting to newspaper serials to further her quest. Princess of snow and blood, both unstoppable killer and inscrutable beauty, Lady Snowblood brings together (and unites in her) the extremes.
Further still, it may be in her liberating role that Yuki truly acts as a bringer of change. Lady Snowblood presents the portrait of a conquering woman, no more bowing to men, but who goes as far as using her sexuality as a weapon. More than once, she’ll end up emancipating the women she meets, usually by freeing them from their torturers. The conclusion of the ultimate chapter then takes on another dimension altogether, declaring the complete separation from her dark past, and finally freed from her shackles of duties, claiming that the future belongs to the women…
- Kozure Ookami for the original version, with art by Kojima Gôseki.
- Pinku eiga, literally “pink movies”, designates a style of Japanese softcore pornographic theatrical film, particularly popular from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s.
- Among which the Zubeko Banchô series, the Sukeban or the Joshû 701-Go — Sasori (“Scorpion”) series — which main character is played by Kaji Meiko, who will also hold the role of Lady Snowblood in its 1973 movie adaptation.
- To wit, the registers that Yuki will have to recover for them before they agree to help her.
- A sexuality that often excludes men, whether in the Sapphic scenes, or in the use of alternatives, “pleurnichards” and other “bamboo-women”.