Race, gender, etc.
Lady Snowblood Vol. 1
Ah, those swords! Those spurts of blood! There might not be all that much 1970’s manga currently available in the US, but we can at least count on a little bit of samurai action slipping through, especially when such material bursts forth from the typewriter of Kazuo Koike, writer of such contemporaneous classics as Lone Wolf and Cub and Samurai Executioner, both of them created with artist Goseki Kojima. In particular, Lone Wolf and Cub spawned a whole series of live-action films, and eventually became one of the earliest word-of-mouth breakthroughs onto the US scene, with famous fans like Frank Miller singing its praises. Lady Snowblood has some famous fans too, at least fans of its own live-action cinema adaptations; Quentin Tarantino borrowed quite liberally from the content and chapter-based structure of the 1973 Lady Snowblood film for his Kill Bill, and Dark Horse is obviously more than ready to play up the association with their US release of the manga original.
But there’s a bit more lurking beneath the surface than sword-slicing thrills from decades past. For one thing, the reader will quickly realize that despite bearing all of the trappings of traditional samurai manga, there’s no actual samurai in this book. The story is in fact set in the late 19th century, as Japan’s lightning-paced modernization shifted into high gear. Instead of traditional robes, government troops wear handsome, Western-style uniforms, with fine hats and thin mustaches. But the common folk are still clad in traditional garb, often rags. And the title character swings her blade like a legendary ronin, even if she’s the last one, even if there’s no honor nor humanity left in this rotting industrial world.
Now let’s be careful; let’s not stroke too far out to sea. Fundamentally, Lady Snowblood is exploitation, and writer Koike assumes the traditional exploitation creator’s stance of decrying all sorts of social ills whilst licking their chops at the lurid displays duly forwarded. Thus, our rough ’n tumble, vengeance-seeking lead appears nude at least once in each chapter she appears in. There’s many a venture into the red-light district, the sins of crime lavished an emperor’s attention. I’ve mentioned that things of interest bubble below the surface, but you’ll also have to sweep away that thick film of gore that blots your view of the depths; this book knows its audience, and enlightenment must only follow pleasure.
And as far as pleasure goes, I liked the book a lot. Of course, I often like bloody historical vengeance stories of this type, but this one is more skillfully executed than average, with a novel, vivid setting and gorgeous art from Kazuo Kamimura, whom I believe has never had his work released in an official English-language edition before (around the same time as this, Kamimura was apparently working on gritty stories of contemporary Japanese youth living their liberated lives - I suppose the swordplay is destined to sell better on either side of the ocean, though). Sleek and gentle, yet never skimping on the grue, Kamimura handily mixes classical influences (many of his wispy, airy establishing panels seem ripped straight from an aged scroll) with delicate character art, moments of cartoon vigor occasionally creeping through, though never in that bombastic Osamu Tezuka way. Occasionally he allows the detail in his faces and bodies to trail away, to strip the modernity from his style and emphasize the historic moment of whatever he happens to be depicting. This is an especially interesting tact when coupled with Koike’s own cultural themes.
The cultural stance the book takes is pretty fascinating, even if it essentially plays into the same collective ‘nostalgia’ (as much as one can be nostalgic for a time you’ve never lived to see) for simpler and more honorable times as so many swordplay entertainments do. Lady Snowblood takes it a little bit further, though, by positioning most of its conflict around the encroachment of modernity, which is often synonymous with Westernization as presented. Each of this book’s five ‘Episodes’ uses a different fragment or batch of historical fact as the impetus for the action, save for possibly the opening chapter’s dice-throwing how-to, which focuses mainly on that ever-sinful world of gambling.
Even the titular Lady’s origin is based on advancement: the 1873 ‘blood tax’ riots, which broke out across the countryside in response to the post-restoration central Japanese government’s mandatory conscription of every adult male into a national army (with pardons always available upon the payment of a modest fee, of course!). Our Heroine’s father was a proud schoolteacher, fond of his new Western-style clothes, but a foul, conniving band of villains concocted a plan to manipulate the village folk into both killing the man and surrendering a mighty ransom in pardon fees; the Lady’s mother was subjected to all manner of atrocity in the bargain. But the mother swore vengeance, and even managed to kill one of the four villains, before being arrested and sentenced to a most unheroic life term of imprisonment. Lady Snowblood was born in jail, and her mother bitterly cursed that a boy hadn’t been born, to grow up strong and avenge her.
As one might guess there’s not a lot of options for women in this world. Virtually every woman we meet is either a half-broken laborer, a sex worker, a career criminal, or looking for a way into nobility. Ever ready to respond to his audience’s probable demands, writer Koike spends a good deal of time on sex politics, often linking sexuality to modernity, and thus to the blackening of the heart and the land. One chapter focuses on the introduction of lesbian sex games to the brothels of Japan; the experience is spiced up further with the utilization of Western-style knickers as undergarments of choice. Lady Snowblood takes the head of the operation out, with prejudice. And lest we think there’s some undercurrent of women’s liberation going on, Koike treats us to a chapter centered around the period’s fad for two-seated rickshaws, which led to a taste for casual sex among the populace; a rickshaw operator is shown to be driven mad with lust from his labors, assaulting his gentleman client and taking a lady by force (because, as you can see, sexual violence is all about lust and not power or anything) - this is one of those moments in which Kamimura dials back the detail, creating a uniquely detached, history-minded sequence of personal violation.
It must be noted, though, that Koike isn’t misogynistic in a particularly affirmative sense (though one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise about later works such as Wounded Man, though even that I see as a response to the demands of his fanbase); he’s mostly interested in whipping up the hallowed return of the Old Ways. It’s made crystal clear in the above-mentioned plot that male rickshaw owners have been known to prey on unsuspecting women, selling them into prostitution. The sword-swinging Lady accepts money (as she does in every chapter - I should probably mention that beyond her origin story, there’s virtually no progress made on the core plot in this volume) to destroy them, and she does it by pushing progress even further: adding pretty paintjobs to the carriages. Actually, she’s also the one who introduces knickers into the Japanese sex industry.
In fact, Lady Snowblood herself is perhaps the big conundrum in this book. She’s given virtually no characterization beyond being an awesome killer and being apparently devoted to her mission of vengeance on her mother’s behalf. And she’s clearly a human avatar for the Old Ways, fighting prowess and flying martial arts and a job well done, “…the old tradition of a bloody grudge…” as the back cover type of Dark Horse’s release dubs it. Yet, she seems well-versed in Western ways, and Western things. Unlike all the other women in the book, she’s mostly free, and utterly self-controlled. Sure, there’s an obligatory capture/torture sequence, but only at the hands of another woman, and a woman of immense skill at that. But it’s also necessary to note that Lady Snowblood isn’t fighting to save women (despite a catchy book-opening sequence of her impaling a phallic shrine ornament with a blade), from what we’re given here; she’s fighting for cash to finance her personal crusade for family vengeance. And she’ll use the tools of advancement to drag the villains down into the dirt, if need be. But she’s not striving for advancement itself; her heart is in older times, better times as it’s not too much of a stretch to suppose.
All of this is thrown into sharper relief with this volume's fifth and extra-sized final Episode, Rokumeikan Murder Panorama (tied with Episode 2’s Stylish Woman and Umbrella Over Rain of Blood for best chapter title). The Lady is hired by a high-ranking official to take down the Rokumeikan, a massive social hall and home to many fancy receptions and balls, many of them held to curry favor with Western politicians; this became the topic of much chat at the time, as Kamimura demonstrates by deftly integrating the work of period artist Shizukata Ohno into his own visual display. There was much Western dress, and many Western ideas were espoused, including the notion of replacing Japanese with English as the nation’s official language, and even radical genetic theories, advocating the suppression of the Japanese identity into cross-breeding with non-Japanese to foster a greater race. “I doubt you’d want to bear a blue-eyed brat by getting laid by a red-haired savage,” declares the Lady’s client, but she remains passive and blank as always, and Koike cheekily notes via narration that perhaps World War II could have been avoided had such extreme facets of Westernization been allowed to thrive.
Oh, but we know where the book’s heart truly lies, as the Lady whips into action (and whips off her clothes, again), killing and posthumously framing a horny American military attaché into a scandalous, interracial suicide pact. The American’s disembowelment is granted a lovely double-page spread, then a vivid point-of-view stabbing panel, then an additional full-page splash. And through her skills and finesse, the Lady ultimately (forgive me) brings down the house. But for what? Not for politics, not for gender, not for race; she doesn’t care a whit. It’s all vengeance for her, pure apolitical self-absorption. And if you think about it, she’s the one that really succeeds in this book. Yes, she’s pointed most often in the direction of defeating the vulgar procession of advancement, and she embodies a classic, most thoroughly past ideal, but personally?
Nothing is personal, save for her focus on the mostly unseen engineers of her family's destruction. Maybe that’s the real message, whatever message one can take from a potent hack ‘n slash special of this sort: care for yourself, and your immediate friends and family. The waves of history may crash upon you, but if you’re devoted to that constrained scope, you’ll succeed in your endeavors.
So don’t stare too hard at the Lady, gentle readers; it’s like gazing at the stars, still there shining on as race and gender and social things swarm about underneath.