In any event, I will rewatch a feature when I find it a bit confusing; and – be warned – that was the case with The Snake Girl And The Silver-Haired Witch. I’ll be discussing that below – though I’m always careful to warn you about spoilers, I’m giving you plenty of advance notice here because what I discuss does include a major plot development (not so much a twist, just a big reveal) – and I’m inclined to believe that regular folks might catch these kinda/sorta big disconnects as well. They’re very obvious.
Now, just because I’m being honest about some problems with the narrative doesn’t mean the film has nothing to offer. I think you’ll find it reasonably well constructed, and it certainly taps into an almost film noir atmosphere to weave this particular tale as well as it does. But I think it’s safe to say that those most familiar with a greater understanding of ‘snakes’ and ‘witches’ as they permeate Japanese culture are going to get more out of this flick than I did. That’s not an insult; it’s just an honest reflection. I’m sure there’s stuff in here that didn’t resonate with me as it may’ve with Japanese audiences. Such is the nature of cultural divide.
But – final warning – expect to be spoiled a bit below.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging:
“A young girl named Sayuri is reunited with her estranged family after years in an orphanage – but trouble lurks within the walls of the large family home. Her mother is an amnesiac after a car accident six months earlier, her sullen sister is confined to a hidden attic room, and a young housemaid dies inexplicably of a heart attack just before Sayuri arrives … is it all connected to her father’s work studying venomous snakes? And is the fanged, serpentine figure that haunts Sayuri’s dreams the same one spying on her through holes in the wall?”
For the record, I’ve read folks who suggest that The Snake Girl is one of the earliest entries in J-Horror (Japanese Horror), and I’m not certain that’s entirely accurate. I mention it because after watching this thing thrice it’s arguably light on any horror elements, especially given the supposed ending wherein most of its fantasy elements are even swept away in the reveal. While there are elements to the remaining story that smack of things commonly tied in with Horror (as a genre), I’d personally still stop short of calling this one much more than a melodrama, maybe even a thriller … and that’s definitely the case after the audience knows what’s up.
And therein lies my problem with the flick: it really doesn’t fit easily into any genre category. Instead, it kinda/sorta steals bits and pieces from one variety, uses them to their fullest, and then grasps at themes from another, continuing this cycle whenever the narrative twists and turns. And just about the time the picture seems like it’s going to settle down and tell its story one way, director Noriaki Yuasa throws in a dream sequence that pushes it back toward the realm of Fantasy, only to then allow it to bend and weave whichever way it might until the next nightmare.
Quibbles aside (and I had plenty), I suppose that it’s still an interesting experiment in storytelling, though one wonders if these shortcomings could be the result of an inferior bout of English subtitling. I’d hold out that being the possibility if I hadn’t listened to the disc’s commentary track … which also points out the film’s inconsistencies but then praises them as strengths. (???) Maybe this ultimately confirms it just isn’t a flick for me – I do look for the parts to add up to a digestible whole – though I’ll admit I still had fun with the performances and some of the camera work. It’s smartly captured … just dumbly written at times.
The Snake Girl And The Silver-Haired Witch (1968) is produced by Daiei. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the reliable Arrow Video. As for the technical specifications? The film looks very, very good; its dream sequences are obviously a bit dated (by today’s sensibilities) but they work largely owed to the ‘fractured fairy tale’ conceit of the whole picture. As for the special features? There’s an examination of the manga upon which the film is based, some image galleries, and a helpful commentary from David Kalat, critic and scholar of Japanese film. For those truly looking for suggestions, watch the film first and then check out Kalat’s commentary: though I disagree with some of his praise, I did get some mileage out of his ‘lecture’ that made me appreciate some of the smaller elements of the film. It’s a good presentation worth your time.
As big a fan of older SciFi and Fantasy films as I am, I’m a bit surprised that I didn’t like The Snake Girl And The Silver-Haired Witch more. It certainly has all the right elements – a young damsel in distress, a somewhat dreamy ‘Twin Peaks’ style atmosphere, and some excellent cinematography and early effects sequences – and yet I was left feeling mostly hollow over the affair. I guess I just never felt all that interested in Sayuri’s character enough to legitimately care about her experiences here, and as she’s clearly the emotional core of everything here I just end up a bit apathetic to it all.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of The Snake Girl And The Silver-Haired Witch by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.