The Snake Girl And The Silver-Haired Witch (Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma)
Japan (1968) Dir. Noriaki Yuasa
Unless you’ve been with your family for your entire formative years, fitting in again after years away is always going to be awkward. Times change and so do people but we tend to hope our kin would be welcoming and do their best to help us settle back in. If not, things could very difficult.
Growing up in a Catholic orphanage from an early age, Sayuri Nanjo (Yachie Matsui) is finally reunited with her estranged family and taken home by her father Goro (Yoshiro Kitahara). Sayuri is warned that her mother Yuko (Yuko Hamada) suffered minor brain damage and amneisa in a car accident and might be a little odd, but aside from calling Sayuri “Tamami”, Yuko is okay with her daughter.
However, Goro, a researcher of animal venom, receives a telegram calling him to Africa, leaving Sayuri with Yuko and loyal housekeeper Mrs. Shige (Sachiko Meguro). During the night, a restless Sayuri is disturbed by the sounds around the house. Yuko confesses that Sayuri has an older sister Tamami (Mayumi Takahashi) but Goro must not be told about her. Tamami is cold and bullying towards Sayuri, who suspects her older sister might actually be a snake.
Well, that is quite the thing to accuse somebody of but Sayuri has good cause to be wary of Tamami as we discover in this overlooked gem from Noriaki Yuasa, better known for directing most of the original Gamera films. Loosely based on the manga Hebi Shojou by Kazuo Umezu, The Snake Girl And The Silver-Haired Witch was apparently meant to be aimed at younger audiences just like the Gamera films, as evident by the occasionally simplistic dialogue, but show this to any youngster and you’ll give them nightmares!
Then again, the Japanese have always been a quite contrary compared to the rest of the world about their limits of what is acceptable for younger audiences, and whilst the BBFC gave this a 12 rating, back in the day I’m sure it would have been closer to an X. Having a child protagonist and a child antagonist sounds pretty awful for what is essentially a horror film, although it gradually turns into a Hitchcock-lite dark mystery.
Beginning with a murder even before the opening credits, in which a young maid is attacked by a snake thrown at her by somebody – or something – with hairy hands. This occurs prior to Sayuri and Goro arriving at the house, which they both shrug off without concern for the deceased. I suppose I should point out the film only runs for 81-minutes so this isn’t a case of heartlessness but narrative expedience, running parallel with hefty info dumps.
As mention earlier, Goro being an expert in animal venom explains the basement lab full or snakes, lizards, and for some reason, a huge vat of acid. It is here the poor maid was attacked since the reptiles are banned from the rest of the house, as is Tamami. The story behind this is not immediately told, with key details only revealed at crucial points in her campaign of terror against Sayuri, but it puts an entirely different spin on the situation.
On her first night, the pure-hearted Sayuri is awakened by noises in the house and when investigating sees her mother carrying food to a Buddhist shrine which subsequently disappears. Sayuri tells Mrs. Shige but she brushes Sayuri off, cautioning her not to say anything to Yoko but the next night a snake drops on her bed from the ceiling, followed by a strange figure with a horrific face sneaking out of the room.
Yuko relents and introduces Sayuri to Tamami, who admitted she was in the room to make friends with Sayuri. Happy to have an older sister, Sayuri forgives Tamami and Yuko lets Tamami out of her hiding place in the attic, but only whilst Goro is away, which will be their little secret. Why? All will be revealed later but for now, we are left to draw our own conclusions and with the information shared thus far, it may not be so obvious.
Key to this is Tamami’s appearance – her face is pallid with a waxy shine to it and at one point Sayuri notices what looks like a cut on the side of Tamami’s face. Flags go up for the audience but Sayuri is none the wiser for the moment – until the nightmares start. If the snakes didn’t get the kids, these will. Drawing on the influence of the psychedelic culture of the period, Sayuri is taken into trippy scenarios where her doll comes to life, snakes attack her, and Tamami shows her demonic, reptilian self.
Complimenting this surreal phantasmagoria is the grounded psychological attack against Sayuri when she is moved to the attic and Tamami takes her room. She awakens to be surrounded by (rubber) spiders but worst still is the ghoulish silver haired witch, a sort of throwback to the Yokai of Japanese folklore – think the death mask from Onibaba as a loose reference point – but there is added mystery as to where she came from.
Like with the Gamera films, Yuasa is working to a tight budget meaning some of the effects haven’t quite stood the test of time, yet by the same token, this practical touch adds a charm to the overall presentation. The in-camera visuals, be it the shadows, the swirling nightmare landscapes, or Tamami’s make-up are much stronger, but also work because of Yuasa’s assured direction and the impressive performances of the two young leads.
It might seem like the horror tag is generous at times but The Snake Girl And The Silver-Haired Witch earns it with its deft blend of spooky happenings, psychological warfare, and tragic undercurrent of the tacitly sinuous script. The potential for a fully fleshed out remake is there but as it stands, this is a nice little surprise of a film, definitely worth checking out via this shiny, crisp new Blu-ray release.