Hollywood needs to watch Lady Snowblood and take copious amounts of notes. Seriously, like so many, many notes.
Lady Snowblood is a 1973 film directed by Toshiya Fujita. It tells the story of Yuki (Meiko Kaji), a young woman whose mother passes a vendetta to her before dying on the night of her birth. Yuki is said to be an asura, a demon of vengeance, her only purpose in life is to track down the people responsible for killing her father and raping her mother.
Starting her training as a young child, Yuki builds the skills she’ll need to kill her targets. Once she’s ready, she sets out to hunt her prey, killing anyone who gets in her way. As the narrator tells us early in the film “All could see her face, as pretty as a flower. But none could know that in her fair and graceful breast, there raged a desire to hunt down her enemies.”
The story in this movie mostly concerns Yuki’s search for the targets of her mother’s vendetta and taking them out one at a time. But she also becomes entangled with members of her potential victim’s families and gets to see that, just like the evil actions that set her on her journey, her quest for revenge will affect people she had no intention of hurting.
Beyond that, the film also comments on the fact that Yuki’s life is not her own. To fulfill her purpose, Yuki has had to kill any trace of emotion and had resisted creating relationships with people she meets. You can’t be a cold-blooded engine of death if your heart gets too warm.
It’s hinted a couple of times at the toll Yuki’s mission has taken on her. She hasn’t completely killed the compassion inside her, which could put her at a disadvantage if people she cares for become involved. We also get a scene of her longingly watching a group of kids playing, hinting that she might feel raw that she never got to experience a normal childhood. These touches add layers of complexity and emotion to a character who might otherwise be a feelingless, unstoppable kill machine.
So, why should the folks in Hollywood pay attention to Lady Snowblood, anyway?
You might have noticed over the past ten years or so, the movie industry has decided to put an emphasis on making female-led movies. Whether they’re pandering to women to get them into theater seats or they actually think it’s an important step in the progression of American society (I’m betting it’s pandering), the folks who make movies have been pushing female-led films of all genres, many featuring female directors and writers.
For the most part, the resulting films are pretty bad.
The reason is that the studio people seem to think that the fact that the lead actor and key members of the team behind the camera have female genitalia is enough for movie audiences to love these movies, regardless of how badly crafted they are. The female characters in these movies are too perfect, too competent and thus, too uninteresting to carry the weight of these films.
That’s sad because, as Lady Snowblood shows, it doesn’t take much more than a little creativity to create an interesting female lead. In fact, the characteristics that make for good female leads are the same characteristics that make for all good characters, be they male, female, alien, genderless, animal, vegetable or mineral.
Give your protagonist relatable motivations to drive her. Give her flaws that could derail her quest for her goal. Give her a chance to show her vulnerability and have her nearly fail to achieve her goal. If we love her and feel like there’s a realistic chance she might fail, we’ll cheer even harder when she ultimately succeeds.
Lady Snowblood gives us all of that stuff. While not a masterwork of the cinematic art form, it’s a beautiful, bloody film with a protagonist so interesting that a simple closeup on her eyes draws us in. And if you can draw an audience in, you can get them to pull for your hero no matter what.