The Films (4/5, 2.5/5)
The Lady Snowblood series has gotten a lot of attention in the last decade and a half as being a primary inspiration for certain elements of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill cycle. However, before the director well known for remixing his influences into his own films utilized Lady Snowblood in those films the pair of films (though primarily the first) were known as a ripping pair of Japanese swordplay splatter films alongside such icons as the Lone Wolf and Cub series.
The first film is essentially the origin story of the assassin known as Lady Snowblood. The film opens with a group of villainous thugs being assassinated in a nocturnal snowstorm by Lady Snowblood. The battle is violent, and elegant, before she kills the leader of the foursome, he inquires to her identity she replies "Lady Snowblood." The film then goes into a flashback where we see Lady Snowblood's Mother twenty years prior giving birth to the titular assassin during a winter blizzard surrounded by other female convicts in a women’s prison. She dies soon after giving birth, but not before giving her the name "Yuki" (Japanese for snow), and cursing her with a revenge quest to kill the remaining 3 people who falsely imprisoned her. Lady Snowblood, the film then cuts back and forth between different time periods to show different aspect of the assassins life on her quest for revenge.
The first film in the Lady Snowblood cycle is a stylish and well executed affair from director Toshiya Fujita. The film is well paced with rarely a moment passing without some excellent action sequence or nice dramatic twist. Lady Snowblood is one of the best looking of the Japanese swordplay films of the period, and executes it's violence with a similar stylishness.
The second film in the sequence Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance takes off a little while after the events of the first one. Snowblood's wounds have healed, but the memories of the deaths she has caused have not. After a epic battle on a beach Lady Snowblood surrenders, and is taken to jail to be executed. However, at the last moment the secret police offer her a deal. If she becomes a spy for them in the home of an anarchist who possesses a document whose contents could destroy the current government. She agrees, but things don't go as planned when she discovers that the person she is spying on might be the one making positive changes.
I had seen the first Lady Snowblood a pair of times before watching the Criterion set. I, however, had not made the time to watch the second. The general consensus was it was by far not as good as the first. I certainly wanted to see the film and formulate my own opinion, but never made the time. Now that I have I can see that it really is a major step down from the first film.
The first film is a solid action film with a nice amount of depth both visually and thematically. Love Song of Vengeance, however, is quite a slog to get through. The film opens and closes with great bits of swordplay related action, the middle portion of the film is bogged down with heavy handed political drama, and a Lady Snowblood that is less certain, and infinitely less cold and calculated than the character depicted in the prior entry.
I will say that the one consistent factor for both films is the performance by Japanese cult actress Meiko Kaji who prior to Lady Snowblood had already made a name for herself in the Wandering Ginza Butterfly films (on DVD in the U.S. through Synapse Films), the Stray Cat Rock series (U.S. Blu-ray through Arrow Video), and the Female Convict Scorpion sequence (Decade old DVD's through Image Entertainment). The performances between the two films couldn't be more different, but she plays them both well, and any moment she is on screen she is certainly the center of attention.
I do think that the Lady Snowblood sequence reaches a premature end with Love Song of Vengeance. The first film was a fantastic origin story for a character who like Lone Wolf and Cub or Zatoichi could have been used in many more films. Her origin story was an excellent slice of Japanese swordplay cinema, and while her second outing left much to be desired, it left room to move from there, and Kaji certainly had already proven herself as a series leading lady by that point.
I have had a chance to view the prior Arrow Video Blu-ray release and the new Criterion Blu-ray edition. The Arrow release to be brief were taken from old studio masters, while the Criterion edition is a complete new remaster with both films presented in a 2:35:1 1080p AVC encode. Both films and their extras are presented on one disc, but that leaves both still looking quite good. The first film has excellent fine detail, colors, and deep inky black levels. The second film is a little bit rougher looking, but also has nice detail and fine color reproduction. There are instances of minor damage from the source, but it's very infrequent, and should be expected with films of this pedigree. Overall, I find that the first film looks better than it ever has on this release.
Both films are presented with an LPCM 1.0 mono track in their native Japanese. The dialogue and score for both films comes through nice and clear. I did not notice any issues such as pops, cracks, or hissing on either track.
There isn't much available on this collection, but what is available is solid. All of the extras aside from a trailer for the second film are aimed squarely at the first, and are compromised of interviews with the creatives behind Lady Snowblood. We get an interview with with Norio Osada the screenwriter of the film that runs about 21 minutes. It goes into detail his creative process in adapting the manga, about Meiko Kaji, and the director Toshiyo Fujita and is quite an interesting piece. The second interview is with the creator of the Snowblood manga Kasuo Koike who goes into detail about the character, creating the manga, and the historical era in which it was set. There is also a trailer for the first film as well as the second both in HD, as well as liner notes.
The first Lady Snowblood film is an excellent example of 70's Japanese swordplay cinema. It is a very stylish violent affair with an excellent lead in Meiko Kaji. The second film is a serious come down from the first, but has it's moments. The Blu-ray's for both look and sound fantastic, and has a decent slate of extras. I would say to buy the set for the first film and consider the second an extra, but since the package is the Complete Lady Snowblood this release comes RECOMMENDED.