The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: December 14th, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch has a title that feels like the stuff of fairy tales. And indeed, Noriaki Yuasa’s strange little fable—adapted from the pages of a pair of Kazuo Umezu mangas—feels like an odd fable of sorts, the story of an orphan girl finding her family, only to discover a horrible secret lurking within the house. We often tell horror stories about children because they’re for children—there’s something obviously moralistic about them, even if they’re often dark and twisted. But it’s also true that the ones about children—specifically stories about the loss of innocence that comes with realizing the world isn’t always a safe place—might be the most primal horror story we have. Even if we don’t realize it at the time, it’s one of the most disorienting experiences we’ll ever endure. If nothing else, The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch captures that alienating disorientation with a dizzying portrayal of a young child’s nightmares: both the ones that plague her while she sleeps and the one she wakes up to each day.
Sayuri Nanjo (Yachie Matsui) has spent her entire life in an orphanage, having been separated from her family at birth due to a hospital mishap. Years later, the orphanage has reunited her with her family, where she immediately takes to her mother and father. When the latter is called off on an expedition for work, however, Sayuri begins to suspect not all is well. She begins to catch glimpses of another mysterious girl in the house, leading her to suspect the tales of ghostly ancestors to be true. However, her amnesiac mother reveals a more horrible truth: the other girl is her sister Tamami (Mayumi Takahashi), who remains hidden within the house, out of the public eye due to a mysterious deformity. As she gets to know Tamami better, though, Sayuri begins to suspect her sister is actually a snake girl, a mythological creature that delights in tormenting her.
As the title suggests, though, this is only about half of the story. And, if I’m being honest, it’s maybe only a third of the story since The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a dizzying spiral into the sad, lingering loneliness of childhood. Sayuri’s dreams of safety and stability after a lifetime of being estranged from her family become a nightmarish cacophony of alienation and sheer terror. Sandwiched between director Noriaki Yuasa’s eight Gamera movies, it’s a pronounced departure in both tone and style. Where those films often find precocious tykes landing in all sorts of trouble, they do so with the harmless rambunctiousness of a Saturday morning cartoon. The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch, on the other hand, subjects poor Sayuri to a labyrinthine ordeal, where her Hitchcockian nightmares are matched by an equally unsettling reality. Her dreams are haunted by living dolls and giant spiders, while her waking life finds her terrorized by an allegedly blood-sucking sister. There’s no escape: an attic full of unsettling masks looms above her, while her father’s creepy-crawly laboratory lurks below, cluttered by exotic animals and a vat of acid.
Like Sayuri, the audience is stranded in this demented funhouse, where questions abound but answers are fleeting as they slink around the corner of each new plot development. Yuasa couches the proceedings in the familiar language of gothic horror: dynamic angles, evocative but restrained glimpses at his menagerie of horrors, and even a touch of melodrama as the story spirals into the kind of delirium typically reserved for giallo thrillers. Or maybe Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a reminder that our most lurid tales actually do just stretch back to the genre’s gothic roots, where weird, wild stories often unfold with little to no regard for logic. Kimiyuki Hasegawa’s script winds and wends through some sharp turns on its way to an oddly lucid (relatively speaking) climax, which does recall the Saturday morning cartoon antics of Scooby Doo—only in the most fucked up way possible when the second title character threatens to shove Sayuri from a precipitous construction site.
However, despite the script’s attempts to untangle its various threads, the entirety of The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch still feels like the remnants of some half-forgotten fever dream. It very much feels like a child’s breathless attempt at mashing together two stories, something that seems like it should be slapdash but winds up feeling apt. A feature, not a bug, if you will, because this is a movie that seeks to be as disorienting and incoherent for the audience as it is for its young protagonist.
Anchoring it all is Matsui’s quietly captivating performance as Sayuri, a child with an almost preternatural awareness of her own loneliness. She often seems desperate and resigned all at once. This is just her life: a strange series of unfortunate events that culminates in her being plagued by her decaying sister and a masked ghoul. She is simply the beleaguered child of this unhinged fairy tale, but that’s the thing: as The Night of the Hunter—another cinematic fairy tale—insists, “they abide and they endure.”
In recent years, I’ve lauded Arrow Video for plucking slashers (including my beloved Phantom of the Mall) from obscurity and lavishing them with elaborate special editions. However, the label has been just as instrumental in doing the same for Japanese oddities. Whether it’s been uncovering the Bloodthirsty Trilogy or releasing a slew of kaiju collections (Daimajin, Gamera, Yokai Monsters), Arrow has carved out quite a niche here. The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is an especially impressive new notch in their belt since the title is making its disc debut after years of languishing in obscurity. The sharp transfer and crisp DTS-MA mono track live up to Arrow’s typically stellar standards, and there’s a decent amount of supplemental material between the disc and the liner notes. Film historian David Kalat provides an audio commentary, while “This Charming Woman” features scholar Zack Davisson delving into the history of the original manga that inspired the film. Raffael Coronelli’s essay “Coils of Trauma: Symbolism of a Snake Girl” further analyzes the film’s form and themes. A trailer and an image gallery round out the extras for yet another nice release from Arrow. This one is especially one of those cool surprises—as much as I look forward to companies releasing special editions about films that I know and love, I’m equally excited when they unearth something completely unknown to me, especially when the title winds up being as alluring as The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch. It’s the highest calling of the sort of curation these companies do, and Arrow has been knocking it out of the park lately.
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