With a title like this you don’t need me to tell you that The Snake Girl And The Silver-Haired Witch is an odd film, but even with how wild that title is, and seeing the psychedelic cover art for the new Blu-ray set, it didn’t prepare me for the experience of watching this wonderfully bizarre movie.
The film follows the character of Sayuri (Yachie Matsui), a young girl who has been living in an orphanage, but is reunited with her birth parents, who she’s been told have been looking for her. Her father (Yoshirô Kitahara) takes Sayuri to her new home, where her mother (Yûko Hamada) is recovering from an accident several months previous. Her somewhat odd and weakened mother is being helped around the house by a housekeeper named Shinge (Sachiko Meguro).
When Sayuri’s father is called away on business to Africa, Sayuri is excited to spend some time with her mother, getting the chance to know her better. However, as soon as her father has left the house strange things begin to happen. She’s attacked in her bed by a snake, and she sees a mysterious, monstrous figure in her room. Sayuri’s mother then reveals to her that she has a secret sister, living in the house’s attic. Now that the father is away Tamami (Mayumi Takahashi) comes down out of the attic to live with Sayuri, but Sayuri begins to suspect that Tamami might be more than she seems.
The plot for The Snake Girl And The Silver-Haired Witch is frankly really weird. It’s a film that doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny, and there are constant contradictions throughout that never quite line up. Sayuri is first told that her parents have been looking for her for years, then we discover that she has an older sister, then we learn that the girls are supposed to be the same age, then we’re told that they were accidentally switched at birth. People are said to know things, but seem to have no knowledge of them later, or the reverse. Sayuri sees things that are fantastical that seem to only be happening in her head, yet she also finds physical proof that cannot be explained.
One of the things that works in the favour of the film is that you just can’t fully comprehend everything. It not only means that there’s a constant sense of unease throughout, but that you’ll find yourself trying to work it out when you go back to watch it a second or third time. You’ll be looking for clues to help try and answer the myriad questions, and you’ll come away with more questions than you started with.
The film was directed by Noriaki Yuasa, who was famous for the Gamera films, a series of Kaiju Eiga films that were a direct rival to Toho’s Godzilla franchise. Yuasa made these films stand out from the other giant monster movies by having Gamera be aimed at kids, and this is something that he brings to this movie in spades. This is a film for children, but also told by them. Sayuri is the narrator, sometimes literally talking us through scenes, and I think it’s her childlike confusion, fear, and unreliability that makes this such a strange film.
Yuasa tells the movie through a child’s eyes, and it’s so unapologetically weird because of that. There are scenes in the movie that take on a nightmarish, dreamlike quality. The screen shimmers and swirls, the music sounds odd and otherworldly, and Sayuri and the audience are bombarded with images that simply cannot be real. It’s almost like a fever dream at times.
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These ideas are explored across this new release, and we get a lot of insight into the film thanks to an interview with manga and folklore scholar Zack Davisson, who explores the origin of this kind of storytelling, as well as the manga the film was based upon. There’s also a the feature-length commentary by film historian David Kalat, who talks us through not just what we’re seeing on the screen, but what Japanese cinema was like at the time, and how this film stood out from the crowd to become a cult classic.
This is the first time that The Snake Girl And The Silver-Haired Witch has been released outside of Japan since a small theatrical run in 1968, meaning that this will be the first time a lot of people get the chance to even it. As an important piece of Japanese cinema, with a recognisable cast, one of the biggest directors of the time, and based upon one of the most influential horror mangas ever, it’s not just a curiosity worth checking out, but a must-watch movie.
The Snake Girl And The Silver-Haired Witch is out on Blu-ray on 20th September from Arrow Video.