There’s nothing quite like Japanese feudal nostalgia to make me appreciate the benefits of modernity. Sure, crass capitalist libertines are hard to love…but at least they have no honor. That has to count for something.
I’ve only read the first volume of Kazuo Koike and Kazuo Kamimura’s Lady Snowblood, but there’s enough honor here to satiate me for quite a while, thank you. The story, set in 19th century Japan, is a rape-revenge narrative. a genre to which I’m by no means opposed. Koike’s take on rape-revenge here is, however, different in some important ways from that in exploitation films like “I Spit on Your Grave” “Ms. 45,” or “They Call Her One Eye.”
— In most American rape-revenge films, the point of the film is the reversal; you get to see a weak, apparently helpless woman turn the tables and castrate/murder her attackers. You can root for her in part because she’s so clearly the underdog; she’s got to be clever and inventive to turn the tables on her assailants.
In Lady Snowblood, though, the titular protagonist is super-hero tough. She is smart and inventive, sure, but you never actually see her in any particular danger (she does get beaten and tortured in one scene, but her torturer is honorable and its all just a misunderstanding. She never actually gets captured or even touched by any villain, at least not in this first volume.
— In most American rape-revenge films, the revenge is personal. That is, the woman is herself a victim, and then she takes revenge on the person who victimized her, rather than on some random individual. This can be a little complicated; for instance, in Ms. 45, the victimizer is men in general, and that’s who the revenge is inflicted on as well; in Death Proof one group of women is murdered and another group takes revenge on the guy who did it. Still, the mechanics work the same; the films are built around a mechanics which, while not always strictly logical, is grounded in a sense of personal justice, individual trauma, and retribution.
Lady Snowblood, though, isn’t built around personal justice exactly. It’s about a blood feud and familial, rather than personal honor. It’s not LS herself, but her mother who was raped years before LS was born. The mother did kill one of her assailants, but she was unable to kill the rest. So she deliberately offered herself to any man who would have her in order to become pregnant and bear a child who would carry out her revenge for her. To which you’ve got to say…um, yuck.
But that’s not the reaction of any of the mother’s peers. On the contrary, they aid and abet the project; mom dies before she can pass on the details of the revenge to her daughter, but her friends helpfully convey the information. Thus, mom deliberately and elaborately ruins her daughter’s life, and everybody around her is like, oh, yeah, that’s awesome.
Moreover, in order to make ends meet and get some cash with which to pursue her revenge, LS hires herself out as an assassin. Most of the people she kills are not especially sympathetic — gamblers, pimps, murderers and so forth. Still, you almost can’t help feeling sorry for them as Lady Snowblood impersonally hacks them into little quivering pieces.
And then we come to the last story of the volume, where our heroine ambushes a coach with an upper class mother and daughter. She kills the mother, then forces the coachman to rape the daughter. Then blackmails the coachman with the threat that his sperm will lead the police to believe he murdered and raped the daughter.
This is all part of an elaborate plot to shut down the Rokumeikan, an estate where upper-class, pro-Western Japanese engaged in orgies with Westerners. LS’s actions are supposed to be justified, as far as I can tell, because the mother and daughter she brutalizes were (A) sexually promiscuous; (B) overly Westernized; and (C) sexually promiscuous with Westerners.
There are certainly class animosities being played out here as well; the loathing of decadent aristocrats bleeds into the loathing of Westernization and modernity. That was true for the Nazis as well, though, I believe. And indeed, Lady Snowblood really does help to explain why the Nazis and the Japanese were able to find common ground. The loathing of weakness, shot through with racial and national connotations; the fetishization of violence; the belief that a violation of national or familial honor justifies almost anything. Add in the hypocritically decadent exploitation elements here — Lady Snowblood is always battling in the buff, for one reason or another — and the result looks, to me, pretty thoroughly vile. No doubt that makes me a spineless, dishonorable Westerner…but considering the alternatives presented here, I may be okay with that.