Snake Woman's Curse Review
It was around the mid-fifties when director Nobuo Nakagawa began to dabble in the Kaidan genre, for which he would forever be best remembered for. Working predominantly for Shintoho, while filming side projects for Toho – which at the time trying to get back on its feet – he effortlessly churned out a series of ghostly tales which followed fairly rudimentary patterns but excelled due to his visual style, spiritual leanings and empathy aimed toward his characters. Of course 1960’s Jigoku would wind up being one of his greatest achievements; a title which has since become synonymous with a large majority of Kaidan flicks since. Shintoho eventually went bankrupt shortly after Jigoku’s completion, and from that point on Nakagawa predominantly worked in the television circuit; but 1968 saw a financially successful Toho give him the go ahead to direct a period horror film which would be one of his last: Snake Woman’s Curse.
The story takes place in a remote countryside village situated in northern Japan during the early days of the Meiji period, which has not yet become westernised. The village is run by a landlord named Onuma (Seizaburo Kawazu), who demands heavy taxes of the locals. One elderly fellow in particular, Yasuke (Ko Nishimura), owes a hefty debt to Onuma and is fearful of his home being taken away. He pleads Onuma to lower the taxes, but the greedy man refuses and soon afterward Yasuke passes away. He is survived by his wife Sue (Chiaki Tsukioka) and their daughter Asa (Sachiko Kuwahara) who is befriended by a young man named Sutematsu (Kunio Murai), but the women are immediately enslaved by Onuma and are told that they’ll work in a weaving shop sixteen hours a day for the next ten years until Yasuke’s debt is paid off. But Yasuke has placed a curse upon the Onuma family and soon they’ll find themselves wishing that they weren’t such gits.
The Kaidan genre in general never was particularly demanding, with the majority of films associated with it recycling the same tale of love, loss, betrayal and revenge and playing them out somewhat melodramatically in tandem with their spooky theatrics and Edo setting. Few directors broke away from the traditional mould in order to challenge the viewer more, but those who did deservedly earned their place as unique storytellers. Examples such as Masaki Kobayashi, Kaneto Shindo, Teruo Ishii and yes, even Chusei Sone, who during the seventies directed a Roman Porno Kaidan tale for Nikkatsu, have amassed quite a collection of important films amongst themselves. Nobuo Nakagawa has the distinction of being their forbearer though - a man who arguably put this genre on the map and in the years since has enjoyed the mantle “the daddy of Japanese horror”. But even he was just as capable of meeting the studio’s simple, clichéd demands as anyone else. Sure enough Snake Woman’s Curse follows a simple path and with characterisation as basic as it is it certainly isn’t up there amongst the best of his work, let alone the best that the genre has to offer, but it’s unmistakably his nonetheless, thematically linking religious theology and political commentary and wrapping it all up in a ghoulish shroud.
Significantly Snake Woman’s Curse takes place in the early days of the Meiji period (1869-1912), which after the Meiji Restoration between 1862-1869 saw Japan conform to modernisation in a bid to attain economic and political power so that it could secure its place as one of the world’s most powerful super nations. But despite such rapid changes in Japan’s society its farmers were amongst the worse off: Suffering from extortionate land taxes which made up approximately 40% of their harvests, their daimyo took payment in rice, which left the workers with little for themselves. Nobuo Nakagawa’s story, then, certainly has its historical value, illustrating the heavy burdens shared amongst local communities in the face of an unfair ruling system, while their offspring are subjected to suffering the same fate by inheriting their families’ sorry debts: the treatment of female weavers in slave labour settings bearing plenty of relevance here. Alongside this, though perhaps played a little more subtle, is Nakagawa’s usage of Buddhist theology, which can be traced throughout his career in making Karmic Kaidan pictures, which naturally elevates the overall sense of injustice and inevitable retribution.
So the scares aren’t initially apparent; in fact Nakagawa spends a great deal of time in setting up a basic social melodrama pitched against a backdrop of corruption, which wouldn’t be out of place in any number of period Yakuza films which were doing the rounds (similarly to Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse which also attempted to mix and match these elements). Therefore characters are practically run of the mill archetypes and several are played rather perfunctory and straight-laced, save for some of the veteran character actors like Junzaburo Ban, Hanzo the Razor’s Ko Nishimura and Shunji Sayama hamming it up a bit. The twist though comes in the form of Japanese superstition involving animals, which isn’t the first time it’s been done, nor the last. The snake, a sacred symbol which often lends itself to taboo areas and is generally a moot point amongst discussion in Japan, provides the perfect means to act out revenge, which gives this feature the kind of weight it needs to survive as the horror it’s designed to be. As with a large portion of Japanese horrors much of what we witness comes in the form of psychological torture, whereby apparitions turn up to systematically terrorise their past tormentors. It’s all very restrained, even by Nakagawa’s standards, with only the occasional supernatural reveal, but it’s a suitable enough approach which leads up to a magically surreal final act and a poignant denouement.
Synapse, in collaboration with Panik House, puts out Snake Woman’s Curse on region 0 disc, which saves you fans a bit of worry, that is if you are still living in the dark ages of non-multi region players. The artwork is particularly impressive, featuring dual cover artwork: a newly painted image by Wes Benscoter and on the reverse a reproduction of the original Japanese poster. Excellent stuff.
The film is presented in a progressive anamorphic 2.35:1 ratio and has been lovingly transferred to disc. Honestly I find little to fault here. Synapse has long prided itself on releasing quality titles and their restoration work is often staggering. As with most Toei titles I find they’re usually kept in fabulous condition, so I’m not sure as to how extensive the transfer process has been in this instance. Whatever the case the image looks great, taken from Toei’s original vault elements. It’s slightly soft in areas, but this is inherent to the negative it appears, as is the amount of shimmering which seems natural to the stock materials. There are no signs of compressions artefacts or edge enhancement, while colour balance is wonderful and black levels and contrast is pleasingly accurate.
For audio we get a solo Japanese mono track, which as always is the only thing we need for these films. And it’s perfectly fine, with crystal clear dialogue and effective scoring and no drop outs or inconsistencies. Optional English subtitles are included and provide excellent timing and translations.
The main feature is an audio commentary by film scholar Jonathan M. Hall, and indeed it does sound very scholarly. Hall sounds like he has plenty of notes accompanying him, or rather long paragraphs from which he’s reading in time with specific scenes. It’s a rather cold and sedated approach (despite his obvious affinity for Nakagawa) where he talks in length about a specific point, but overall his delivery just isn’t engaging enough. While he certainly raises valid points here and there concerning the time in which these films were made and what they signify in relation to Japanese superstition etc he does on more than one occasion overanalyse portions and comes across quite pompous. I’m sure he means well, but damn those film classes really drill it into you don’t they? It also doesn’t help when there are so many long pauses, causing the viewer/listener to lapse into boredom. I am sure had he written an article instead it would have made for a much more approachable feature.
The rest of the bonus material is fairly light. We have the original theatrical trailer with newly mastered subtitles. As with most trailers of its time it’s rather lengthy at over two minutes and paves the way for spoilers, so beware. The Poster Gallery consists of approximately twenty poster images, which are taken from various Nobuo Nakagawa pictures, and finally we have an excellently written and informative biography on the director by Chris. D.
Snake Woman’s Curse is yet another tale of ghostly retribution which follows a somewhat predictable path, but it’s enlivened by Nobuo Nakagawa’s philosophical nature and historical leaning, alongside some pleasant cinematography. Perhaps the horrors don’t lie squarely with its aesthetics, but more so in what it has to say about man’s many flaws when faced with desperate times of change.
Synapse’s presentation of the film is excellent all round, picking up where Panik House left off and seeing to it that these Japanese classics receive the attention they so rightly deserve.
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