Lady Snowblood is the story of an unstoppable and beautiful female assassin who leaves a trail of bloodshed and violence through the criminal underworld as she tracks down the four criminals responsible for destroying her family.
No, it doesn’t sound terribly original, does it? And the cover’s not exactly screaming “unique and original”, either.
In fact, the only thing saving Lady Snowblood from being a complete Kill Bill ripoff is that it was originally published thirty
years ago, and that the subsequent adaptation was heavily referenced in Tarantino’s film: From the music in the opening credits to the final scene set in a snowy garden, Lady Snowblood
made an obvious impact on Tarantino. Accordingly, the original manga, written by the creator of Lone Wolf & Cub , is a pretty significant piece of work.
Set in late-1800s Japan, Yuki is born in a women’s prison to an inmate serving a life sentence for murder. No one knows who the father is, since the mother has been sleeping with the guards since she arrived. Her cellmates finally learn the reason: Not for sexual voracity or even to seek favours, but to bear a child to carry out the vengeance she can not.
The adult Yuki is a highly paid assassin who pursues her blood vengeance between her
professional assignments. Most of this first volume concerns itself with the paying work, primarily as a way of showing how formidable she is. The character teeters on the edge of being completely and utterly invincible, which defuses some of the dramatic tension. Kazuo Koike balances this by
making sure not all of the stories revolve around more than simply Lady Snowblood‘s inclination to perform acts of great violence. While she’s not opposed to slaughtering everyone in sight if that’s what it takes, later chapters in the book require more cunning and subtlety. One assignment sees her armed with a paintbrush instead of a sword, while the final story involves pickpocketing, rape, murder, and the creative placement of several bodies. The reader’s question becomes less “is
she going to make it out of this?” than “what on earth is she doing?”
Koike centres several stories around the politics and society of turn of the century Japan. Western economic and political influence is seeping into the country, and there are those who want to embrace it and those who want to turn it away. Lady Snowblood offers a number of observations on the changes in society, from the top minds of the country to the lowest scum in the gutters. It’s often
secondary to the plotting and carnage, but it adds more depth to the stories: while Lady Snowblood herself can be something of a cypher, the interactions with her environment elevate the story above the simple blood vengeance tale.
In addition to inspiring Kill Bill, Lady Snowblood has a lot in common with the “Bad Girl” trend in comics that became particularly virulent in the 1990s. Lady Snowblood is a hot chick, after all, who can pretty much kick any man’s ass. And like any good bad girl, she frequently ends up naked in the course of her assignments. One can suggest that it’s because fighting in a kimono isn’t exactly conducive to speed and agility, but few of the similarly attired men seem to view nudity as a strategic
advantage. There are some minor misogynistic themes cropping up, but at this point in the series it’s difficult to say if it’s the writer’s work or just a reflection of the setting of the book. It’s not enough to seriously detract from the story, and as long as “Lady Snowblood gets naked and bloody” doesn’t become a routine plot device, it’s probably not a huge problem.
Kazuo Kamimura’s illustrations capture the violence and depravity nicely. Lady Snowblood is beautiful, while her actions are often terrible. Koike relies on Kamimura to tell much of the story on his own – many sequences have little or no dialogue, and Kamimura depicts the action well. Most of the fight scenes are expertly choreographed; I can’t quite tell if some are confusing, or if I’m still getting used to reading right-to-left. Altogether, it’s not surprising that Kamimura’s artwork was used in the film to illustrate some of the backstory of the character.
The first volume of Lady Snowblood is somewhat lacking in an overall narrative. The main purpose here is to show off the main character and provide a look at her origin. As a result, it reads like more
of a collection of stories than one epic tale. It’s still a very good collection of stories, introducing an intriquing character and showing off some excellent plots. Lady Snowblood surpasses all of her imitators in grace, beauty, and ruthlessness; even The Bride would think twice before crossing her. Lady Snowblood is essential reading for fans of Kill Bill and Asian cinema, and a pretty good deal for anyone up a healthy serving for some sex, violence and vengeance.