"The Snake Girl & The Silver-Haired Witch", Dir: Noriaki Yuasa, 1968
Noriaki Yuasa is perhaps more well-known as the director of the cycle of "Gamera" films produced by the same studio, Daiei, from the 60's and into the 70's, than this oddity that at first glance seems to stem from similar sources as the entertaining supernatural fantasies featuring "Yokai" covered in an earlier blog post and it has in common with those films a thread that taps into Japanese mythology.
However, it's actually a psychological thriller based on an earlier 2 part "Manga" comic that taps into a rich vein of folklore surrounding snakes that finds resonance across S.E Asia and in particular in India.
In terms of atmosphere and tone it could have sprung from the hand of Alfred Hitchcock, with it's moodily lit interiors and monochrome photography and there are thematic and tonal elements that are reminiscent of films such as "Les Yeux Sans Visage" and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane".
Of course, dark shadowy hallways and basement labs are the stock in trade of many horror films before and since, so these simply establish a general feeling of unease as would be expected from such a film, though the poster alone could successfully reel in - or repel - audiences with its' striking and slightly disturbing imagery.
The film opens with a housemaid engaged in cleaning who then goes down into a basement that contains a number of vivariums containing venomous snakes. There is the sense that she is trespassing and merely curious and we then see a pair of monstrous gnarled hands remove one of the snakes and toss it in the direction of the maid, who then dies of a heart attack due to shock. Moments later the family housekeeper comes to investigate after hearing a scream and discovers the body of the cleaner.
This forms a pre-titles sequence that sets up the tone of the film as a mystery with horror elements.
The plot concerns a young orphan "Sayuri", played by a very promising child actress, Yachie Matsui (in her one and only film role), who is reunited with her birth parents - actually her biological father. a herpetologist with a speciality in studying snake venom, and his second wife - after spending her early years in a Catholic orphanage for reasons that are made clear later in the film.
During the drive from the orphanage to her new home, her father asks her not to be too alarmed if her mother doesn't recognize her since she had earlier been involved in a car accident and has lost her memory as a result.
On arriving at the house Sayuri is introduced first to the family housekeeper, "Shige" (Sachiko Meguro) and when she eventually meets her mother she is greeted as "Tamami", a name Sayuri doesn't recognize but accepts that this is a case of mistaken identity due to her step-mother's memory loss.
It should be pointed out that at this stage, Sayuri is unaware that her mother is anything other than her true biological mother.
Sayuri is welcomed into her new home despite the feeling that things are not as ideal as they might be for her new life and over her first lunch with her new family, her father announces that he has been called away to Africa for a few weeks to study a new type of venomous snake, leaving Sayuri in the care of her mother and the housekeeper, Shige, and with strict instructions never to venture into her father's basement laboratory.
And from this point on, things start to get very weird for Sayuri, firstly, when we are made aware of a hole in the ceiling directly above her bed from which a pair of eyes watch her intently before at one point dropping a snake onto her.
Yuasa plays this scene and others in such a way as to suggest that they could be merely Sayuri's over-active imagination and furthermore, uses her internal monologue throughout the film as a device to reinforce this, keeping the camera position low to imply that this is her personal perspective on the strange goings-on around her.
Having recovered from the shock of seeing the snake, real or imagined, Sayuri then happens to spy on her mother walking through the home at night carrying a tray of lunch left-overs, so she decides to follow her out of curiosity and discovers her placing the tray in front of a small shrine dedicated to the familial domestic deities and the Buddha common to many traditional Japanese homes.
When her mother leaves the shrine room Sayuri looks through the door that she has left ajar and sees that the food has mysteriously vanished, which she finds odd but then reasons that her mother has simply taken the food items with her.
To reveal much more of the plot would be a spoiler for what is a fascinating, disturbing and spooky film but in short it involves the revealing of Sayuri's "sister", Tamami" (Mayumi Takahashi), also in her one and only film role and the "Snake Girl" of the title, who has been confined to a dusty attic bedroom full of frightening carved wooden Kabuki masks directly above that of Sayuri's.
Tamami, of the same age as Sayuri, is psychologically disturbed, her face curiously immobile as if the result of paralysis, and finds Sayuri a threat and a rival to her parent's affections, later banishing Sayuri to the attic while she occupies her room and terrorises her invalid mother and anyone who stands in her way, her only ally of sorts being the housekeeper Shige.
The film is peppered with some fantastical dream sequences that again serve to sow in the audience's mind the sense that these are simply Sayuri's childish imagination working overtime, but are they ?
The films' success depends to a large extent on the audience expectation that there is a supernatural explanation for everything that occurs, playing into their own beliefs about folk mythology and spirits etc and when we finally see the horrific wizened hag that is the "Silver-Haired Witch" of the title, we wholly expect her to be just that, ie some kind of supernatural being.
The film's climax - set on a building site directly across from Sayuri's home after it has been set alight by an enraged Tamami spurred on by the Silver-Haired Witch - alone must have been incredibly challenging for the two young actresses playing Sayuri and Tamami and in spite of the young cast, the director doesn't spare the audience from some genuinely disturbing and horrific scenes involving them.
It's interesting to note that Daiei aimed this film at a broad audience that would have included children, possibly at a time before film certification gave a clear indication beforehand of the type of film audiences might expect to see.
Besides the supernatural thread that runs through the film there is a less obvious commentary revealed in the fact that Sayuri starts the film in the Catholic orphanage. This could be seen as a mere incidental plot point in view of the fact that perhaps many orphanages in Japan during the post-war period were the result of Christian missions in Japan but it could also be seen as a way of highlighting a shift away from the old superstitious beliefs of feudal Japan to those of the rationalist, monotheistic West in order to embrace progress and enlightenment in the post-war years of reconstruction of a Japan ravaged by war, but without necessarily suggesting that one should replace the other.
It's therefore no coincidence that Sayuri's home is positioned directly opposite a building site for modern housing high-rises and which serves as a kind of visual metaphor for the above.
This theme runs through Daiei's other films, in particular in those centered on "Yokai" folk mythology and where a protagonist will often pour scorn on native superstitions and then pays a price for doing so - here the slant is slightly different and the plot takes no firm position either way, leaving the audience to figure out what is going on by teasing you with what at first glance seem to be supernatural situations set in a "modern", contemporary context, rather than that of Medieval Japan.
Overall it's rather more than "Two rival, shape-shifting sisters are on less than good terms. However, when an evil creature makes an appearance, they have to overlook their differences and join forces to battle it" as misleadingly described in the Google entry for Apple TV, which is how I viewed it (though distributed by Arrow via Arrow Player) - in fact it's an intriguing psychological thriller supported by some ingenious visual effects typical of Daiei's output in the mid to late 60's that successfully delivers in terms of shock value and can be more fully appreciated with some knowledge of Japanese folk culture, and without which it can seem to be merely odd and quirky.
"The Snake Girl & The Silver-Haired Witch", Dir : Noriaki Yuasa, 1968
Apple TV / Arrow Player