There’s that shot in the first Kill Bill, where the villains have killed the Bride’s husband and wedding guests and brutalized her. The camera takes on the Bride’s perspective, looking up at the group as they stare down at her with smiles on their faces. It’s a one-in-a-million shot that conveys everything you need to know about everyone involved without words or other overtures. What the shot isn’t, however, is original.
Tarantino is known for recreating shots from movies that inspired him within his own films. In this case, he’s paying overt homage to the 1973 Japanese revenge epic Lady Snowblood, whose two installments just received a lavish Blu-ray and DVD release from the Criterion Collection. From simple shots to strange closeups where the characters talk to the camera as if it’s a character, there’s a lot in Lady Snowblood that will feel very familiar to first-time viewers.
Tarantino once told an interviewer about Kill Bill, “I had a whole list of revenge movies, especially female ones like Lady Snowblood.” It’s an understatement, as it turns out: the Kill Bill saga bears more than a passing resemblance to this gorgeously stylish revenge piece, centered around a lady assassin seeking revenge on the group of five who raped her mother and killed her family.
A lone, highly skilled woman bent on vengeance is a popular trope nowadays, but in 1973, the idea was far more cutting-edge. Everything about the movie is really about style in transition — from older, traditional Japanese filmmaking centered on keeping the West out, to a bold melting pot of ideas that was heavily influenced by European and American cinema. The film is infused with the overtones of Sergio Leone’s westerns as much as classic Japanese samurai epics.
Even the soundtrack is an amazing mix of old and new, East and West. Snowblood opens and closes with a sultry theme song that could be a Bond ballad sung in Japanese. The soundtrack mixes traditional Japanese instruments with jazz and tracks that are directly inspired by Ennio Morricone’s indelible scores — all elements that Tarantino plays with in Kill Bill. Like a lot of the camera work in Snowblood, the sonic layers smash into each other in constantly surprising ways. This refusal to let viewers settle into a comfortable, predictable zone affected Tarantino’s narrative preferences in all his films.
Snowblood director Toshiya Fujita was, in a way, doing exactly what Tarantino does now: taking existing styles and shoving them forward. In doing so, he created something all his own and inspired a whole new crop of movie makers to push boundaries of style, violence and characterization. Tarantino is the modern result of Fujita’s work, but you could argue that much of the 70’s exploitation cinema movement (especially in the East) took great influence from Lady Snowblood.
Most obviously, Lucy Liu’s O-ren Ishi is essentially a carbon copy of Lady Snowblood, despite being one of Kill Bill’s villains. Her sequences in the snow directly mirror several key scenes in Snowblood, and her anime flashback sequence could almost directly tie back to Snowblood’s story. Tarantino also took the brutal training sequences of Snowblood and ran with them, although the eye-plucking scene in Kill Bill 2 remains Tarantino’s alone. Both films aren’t shy about showing the ugly sides of humanity, especially in regards to the treatment of women. Snowblood’s mother was hellbent on revenge and passed her vengeance on to her daughter, and the lengths both women go to are, well, extreme.
The similarities go on. For now, I’ll just say that any fan of Tarantino should check out Lady Snowblood, especially this new release. The colors are vivid, the images sharp and the terrific cinematography has never looked better. There’s a reason it held so much weight in Tarantino’s mind for so long: 42 years later, Lady Snowblood is still a hell of a movie.