Lady Snowblood (Toshiya Fujita, 1973) at the Scarecrow Screening Lounge (February 14, 2015)

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One of my earliest and happiest Seattle film experiences was in the late summer of 1998, when I saw Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo at Scarecrow Video. It was upstairs, in a little room (I think it’s an office now, but it might be the comedy section) with a dozen folding chairs and a very small screen. The movie played, I believe, in 16mm, a tiny strip of Cinemascope ten feet away. There were four of us in the audience, two strangers and a friend who had never seen a Kurosawa film before, though his films had been seemingly everywhere that August (I had earlier caught Rashomon, Throne of Blood and The Hidden Fortress at the Varsity). It was, of course, a great movie and my friend loved it, sparking his own trip through one of the great 20th Century filmographies. The film showings at Scarecrow ceased sometime shortly after that, I don’t know when or why, but the experience has always stuck with me. We tend to get caught up with the incidentals of our film-going: comfy seats, giant screens, and ear-blasting sound in our multiplexes; giant TVs, plush couches and remote controls in our homes. But all of that is sideshow, what really matters is the movie, and going out to the movie, leaving our own space and sharing a darkened room with a bunch of strangers, all looking at the same pictures on a wall. I’ll see a movie anywhere, in any format, because what matters most is that movie, and there’s no better way to see a movie than in a theatre, any kind of theatre.

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It’s now 17 years later, and Scarecrow is showing movies again. Just about every night they play something from their catalogue, in a slightly bigger room (downstairs, at the front of the store) on a slightly bigger screen (a TV, the showings are all video; it is a video store, after all). One of the popular rewards from last year’s Kickstarter fundraiser was the chance to program a night in the Scarecrow Screening Lounge, and both Mike and I here at Seattle Screen Scene chose that option. Mike’s pick was Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 exploitation classic Lady Snowblood and he chose to play it on Valentine’s Day, because of course he did. (My pick is Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday, date to be determined). I’d never seen the film before, and this was my first time in the Screening Lounge. But the experience was much the same as that Yojimbo showing so many years ago: not an ideal setting to be sure, but who cares?

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I want to write a bit about the movie itself, because while the primary focus of Seattle Screen Scene has been movie listings and previews of movies that are currently playing or will be playing soon, that is not the end of the movie-going experience. Essential to that as well is talking about the movie afterward, and, for a lot of us at least, writing about what we’ve seen, whether anybody will actually read it or not. Lady Snowblood played several days ago, and who knows when it will play again (it is, of course, available for rent at Scarecrow). But just because it’s no longer playing, doesn’t mean the conversation about it has to stop. I hope we have more reviews here as the website grows. So here’s a little review of Lady Snowblood.

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I have almost no knowledge of Japanese cinema of this period, the early 1970s, so I can’t really contextualize the film that way, but I do know a lot about Hong Kong films of the same period, and the two national cinemas do have a lot in common, with influences going both ways (even leading some to lump kung fu and samurai movies together as “mixed martial arts” cinema, which they really shouldn’t, for a lot of reasons). Lady Snowblood really isn’t any bloodier than any given Chang Cheh film from the same period (1970’s Vengeance! seems an apt comparison, for one), although the blood is definitely more splattery, with every arterial blast eliciting quiet snickers from some corners of the audience. It’s that that makes it an exploitation film, I guess, with the art coming around the edges of the violence, as opposed to in Chang’s films, where the art is the violence: the ways it is filmed, choreographed and performed, the movements and expressions of the bodies on-screen intimately tied to Chang’s obsession with codes of honor and loyalty among men (almost always men with Chang). In contrast, the bodies here are rather modest, hidden by thick layers of robes and make-up. How shocking that violation when our heroine is cut: not the wound itself, which seems minor, but the near-severing of her sleeve revealing a bare shoulder. As well, Eiji Okada, the textures of whose body were so central to Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes, is almost entirely lost here behind dark glasses and fake beards. Similarly, is the action obscured by editing and choreography, cuts that elide movements rather than display them, more along the lines of an older wuxia tradition (perfected by King Hu in this period with Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen) than the intricate relation between choreography and camera developed by Lau Kar-leung in his films with Chang Cheh. I have no idea of star Meiko Kaji’s athletic abilities, instead her performance lives in her poses, her mask of a face, and most of all in her eyes. She’s revenge incarnate, a force of nature unable to comprehend a wider world.

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The narrational approach is also unlike anything I’ve seen from Hong Kong in this period, with lengthy journalistic interludes giving historical backstory and (over-)complicating the simple revenge story of the film’s plot proper (which itself is told in chapters, in keeping with the story’s manga roots). It has a strident, point-making urgency, like Mizoguchi in the style of The Naked City. This, along with the meta-narrative twist that Lady Snowblood’s story is literally being written as it’s being enacted on-screen, with the publication of her story impacting the future events of her journey in an intentional way, distances us from the roiling emotion of her revenge quest, attempting to tame and give political form to the rage inspired by the exploited, the dispossessed, the raped and murdered, the savagery of the world. It fails to do so, and Lady Snowblood derives its most powerful meanings from the elements that prowl sideways around that story: from the noise and churn of the natural world, not just in the eponymous snow, but in the trees, the grass and the lunatic sea. Contrast this with Chor Yuen’s 1972 female revenge film Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, carefully crafted and set entirely on the Shaw Brothers’ lavish sound stages. It’s a more psychologically complicated film, but more controlled and less expressionist. Lady Snowblood’s world is a vortex of depravity, and she, a small, expressionless, almost voiceless woman is its determined center. At the end, half-dead, her face buried in fresh snow, she finally lets out a scream, a primal cry from the end of the world. And then she gets up, and walks away.

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