The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)‘I felt very sorry for thinking that my sister was a snake.’

An adolescent girl living at an orphanage is claimed by her birth parents at last. However, she finds herself joining an unusual household. Her mother has memory issues, her father keeps snakes in his basement study, and she has the strange feeling that she’s being watched…

Unusual black and white Japanese horror-fantasy that displays some interesting concepts but lacks logic and a focused, consistent story. Although based on two separate Mangas by Kazuo Kozu, it also bears a strong resemblance to the medieval Western folk belief of ‘the changeling’, something modern commentators now to tend to credit to the appearance of any disability in a child when it outgrew the cradle.

Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) has grown up as a happy, well-adjusted girl under the care of nuns at the orphanage run by Sister Yamakawa (Kuniko Miyake). But it’s still wonderful when her father and mother (Yoshirô Kitahara and Yûko Hamada) offer her a stable and loving home instead. But, as soon as she takes her place in the family, there are problems. Hamada seems generally confused, due to injuries sustained in an apparent car accident, and reptile-fancier Kitahara has to leave on a long expedition to Africa because of reports of a rare species of snake. We’re never told precisely what the work it is that Kitahara does (it’s just identified as ‘research’) and, although that doesn’t seem initially important, given the way that the story develops it’s odd that it wasn’t more integral to the plot.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)

‘You don’t know the way back to the ‘Spindrift’ by any chance?’

It’s not long before Matsui feels uncomfortable in the house, particularly after seeing a strange girl in her room. Although Hamada and live-in housekeeper Shige (Sachiko Meguro) try to pass it off as a bad dream, Matsui is not convinced. Further incidents occur, and the adults are forced to reveal the truth: Matsui has an older sister, Tamamai (Mayumi Takahashi) living in a private room at the top of the house. Matsui is happy to welcome her new family member, but there’s an immediate sibling rivalry, fueled by Takahashi’s anti-social and controlling behaviour. She also leaves scales in the bed, which is not very hygienic.

What most viewers will remember from this unusual film is Matsui’s dream sequences, as realised by director Noriaki Yuasa. Most of the SFX in these are somewhat dated, but there’s still an uncomfortably trippy and psychedelic edge to them, which makes them oddly unsettling. Matsui uses a sword to battle both flying snakes and the gruesome, long-clawed Silver-Haired Witch of the title. It’s also impressively surreal when Matsui is dragged through the air like Lois Lane by the (super)human personification of her doll, only to see her only companion eventually strangled by a snake, leaving her mentally more isolated than ever.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)

‘Ouch!’

But where a film like this stands or falls depends on the child actors, of course, and it’s pleasing to report that both Matsui and Takahashi are absolutely terrific. Matsui gives us a heroine who is both happy go lucky but relatable, and Takahashi is deliciously spiteful but ultimately tortured by her insecurities and overwhelming anger. They make a highly effective partnership; it’s only a shame that neither ever acted again.

Unfortunately, the story is weakened by a severe lack of exposition, particularly regarding the motivations of key characters. Although the version of the film that I viewed runs the complete length as quoted by reliable sources, a suspicion lingers that something is missing. Certainly, the story starts rather abruptly and fails to establish the initial setup clearly. This can be forgiven when explanations begin to emerge during the second act, but they are never fully developed. Several important questions are left unaddressed after the film’s climax, well-executed though it is. Of course, a greater familiarity with the source material and Japanese folk myths might yield greater clarity, but it’s still a little frustrating.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch/Hebi musume to hakuhatsuma (1968)

‘Are you sure I can’t interest you in some cough drops?’

Technically, the film is well-accomplished, with Yuasa and his director of photography, Akira Uehara, creating an effectively claustrophobic and creepy ambience out of the one set where most of the story unfolds. Yuasa was the man who initially brought a giant flying outer space turtle to the big screen in ‘Gamera: The Giant Monster/Daikaijû Gamera’ (1965). He also directed several of the sequels including the epic ‘Attack of the Monsters/Gamera tai daiakuju Giron’ (1969) and the almost as incredible ‘Gamera vs Zigra/Gamera tai Shinkai kaijû Jigura’ (1971).

Offbeat Japanese horror fantasy that makes up for what it lacks in the story department with some interesting visuals and a strong atmosphere. Well worth checking out.

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