Saturday 24 October 2020

Nippon Horrors / Horror Express 2020 #10:
Kaidan Hebi-Onna /
‘Snake Woman's Curse’

(Nobuo Nakagawa, 1968)

 A decade or so after he turned out a series of fairly wacky horror pictures like Ghost Cat Mansion and The Lady Vampire for Shintoho, Nobuo Nakagawa - who had largely retired from directing after directly contributing to the bankruptcy of the aforementioned studio with his 1960 epic ‘Jigoku’ [‘Hell’] - returned to the fray for this considerably more conventional kaidan effort, produced under the unlikely auspices of Toei.

I say ‘unlikely’, because, although they soon would soon go on to cut a bloody swathe across the early ‘70s with some of the most grotesquely violent and OTT genre movies ever made, supernatural horror was never really Toei’s ‘thing’, leaving Kaidan Hebi-Onna [‘Snake Woman’s Curse’] feeling like a bit of a curious one-off.

According to what little background info I can find on the film, the production seems to have originated with writer Fumio Kônami, who apparently told the producers that he would only allow the studio to film his script if Nakagawa (who had not worked in the industry for about five years at this point) was hired to direct. (1)Apparently keen to try to establish a viable kaidan/horror line at the time, Toei acquiesced to the writer’s request, and…. bob’s yr uncle, as we say over on this side of the globe. (2)

Plot-wise, ‘Kaidan Hebi-Onna’ is in most respects a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill kaidan picture - essentially a variation on the old bakeneko (ghost-cat) story, in which a wronged woman returns from the grave with the help of an animal spirit to take her vengeance on the hateful aristocrats who have destroyed her family, only with snakes used as the totem animal this time around instead of cats.

Set (and presumably filmed) somewhere in Japan’s remote far western region, the story opens with an elderly peasant farmer (the ubiquitous Ko Nishimura), practically throwing himself under the wheels of the local landlord’s coach, as he begs for leniency vis-à-vis the repayment of his debts. Needless to say, such mercy is not forthcoming from the venal plutocrat (Seizaburô Kawazu), but, on his death-bed, the farmer is still pleading deliriously for the chance to save his family’s small-holding, uttering the key phrase which will go on to become something of a catch-phrase for the film’s spectral avengers: “even if I have to eat dirt, I will pay you back”.

After the man’s death, the landlord decrees that his homestead will be demolished in order to clear space for the planting of mulberry trees (used in the production of silk), whilst his wife (Chiaki Tsukioka) and adult daughter (Asa, played by Yukiko Kuwahara) are cheerfully informed that they will be taken into service in the landlord’s household, there to ‘work off’ their late patriarch’s debts.

As you might imagine, this is far from an idyllic prospect for the two women. Set to work weaving silk in what basically amounts to a small scale Victorian sweatshop, Asa must work sixteen hour days under the supervision of the landlord’s thuggish, lecherous son (Toei yakuza/action regular and future Roman Porno director Shingo Yamashiro), whilst her mother meanwhile becomes a general domestic dogsbody, bullied and belittled at every turn by the landlord’s sadistic wife (Kurosawa regular and future ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ / ‘Sex & Fury’ legend Akemi Negishi).

Although their fellow servants treat them with kindness, and although Asa still has steadfast fiancée Satematsu (Kunio Murai) waiting for her on the outside, the inhumane treatment doled out to the two women leads them, inevitably, to their sad and undignified deaths. Asa’s mother, significantly, has always made a habit of habit of helping unloved animals (she was nursing a pigeon back to health when the family lost their home), and she is struck down whilst attempting the prevent the killing of a snake which has intruded into the landlord’s house.

As anyone who knows the ‘rules’ of this genre will be well aware by this point, the Big Man and his horrid family had better watch the hell out, as Nakagawa and his crew prepare to get busy with the thunder crashes, gel lighting, stage blood, green-faced living corpses and double-exposed snake effects, for the riotous closing act of vengeance-from-beyond-the-grave.

To Western audiences, these films often play more like ritual re-enactments of familiar folk tales than exercises in contemporary story-telling, which perhaps to some extent accounts for their failure to gain much of an overseas following, as the lack of novelty within their narratives can soon become pretty dispiriting. Once you’ve seen a handful of ‘em, you’ll know exactly how things are going to play out, right from the outset. The only interest comes from seeing how efficiently the filmmakers will accomplish their task, in technical and dramatic terms.

For domestic audiences however, we must assume this would not have been so much of a problem. More accepting of the traditions behind the bakeneko form, and more able to appreciate the more subtle cultural resonances within it, one hopes they would have been able to view each addition to the cycle with fresh eyes. 

(By way of comparison, we can perhaps imagine how a viewer largely unfamiliar with American culture would feel after being sat down and told to watch 25 early ‘80s slasher films. We might love them all for their minor eccentricities and variation on the theme, but to the uninitiated, aren’t they all kind of the same, more or less?)

In some ways, ‘Snake Woman’s Curse’ feels like a case in point in this regard. As eye-rollingly over-familiar as the basic storyline may be, look deeper and some very specific points of departure from the norm begin to emerge. For a start, the film is set during the Meiji era (1868-1912), a time of dramatic change and modernisation for Japan, immediately differentiating it from the more historically static Edo or Tokugawa eras in which kaidan stories more traditionally take place.

Again, domestic audiences would likely have been keyed into this right from the start, as the landlord is seen roaring through his domain in a Western-style coach, whilst his son sports a bowler hat and other foreign accoutrements. The mechanised ‘sweat-shop’ in which Asa is put to work likewise represents a form of industry unknown in pre-Meiji Japan, but whilst the the adoption of these innovations by the film’s villainous aristocrats would seem to indicate an implicit support for the older, folk-based way of life favoured by the hard-done-by peasants, the approach taken by Kônami’s script is, as usual, a little more nuanced than that.

The ambiguous attitude to modernisation and/or Westernisation so frequently encountered in early ‘70s Japanese genre cinema is perfectly encapsulated here via a memorable one scene cameo from Tetsurô Tanba, playing a regional police chief dispatched to investigate the murderous goings on within the landlord’s domain.

Effectively acting as the very personification of modern, democratic state governance, Tanba reduces the landlord to a fit of spluttering disbelief as he calmly undercuts the local lord’s Shogunate-derived feudal authority, daring to suggest that the police may wish to investigate the death of one of his peasants, and that he might even dare to implicate members of the aristocrat’s own family in the process - an absolutely unthinkable prospect for a man born into the strict caste system of the Tokugawa era, and an amusing demonstration of that the way that, however keen the ruling classes may have been to enrich themselves using technological innovations offered by contact with Western capitalism, their understanding of the social and political implications of such development tended to lack somewhat behind.

As you will no doubt have gathered from the preceding paragraphs, ‘Kaidan Hebi-Onna’ is about as politically conscious a kaidan pictures as you could possibly hope to find, taking the age old fantasy of the rural peasantry exacting revenge against their cruel feudal overlords baked into all bakeneko stories, and hammering it home for strongly than ever, applying it to a more nuanced, more realistic and more historically recent setting in the process.

Some might be apt to suggest that the film’s success as a horror movie suffers as a result of this heavy emphasis on socio-economic angst, and indeed Nakagawa’s pacing here is glacially slow, whilst the atmosphere he builds is painstakingly sombre. The inevitable horror ‘effects’ which dominate the final act meanwhile, whilst inventive and fun, are strictly conventional within the genre.

So, we’re definitely not looking at a Friday night horror banger here I’m afraid, but, if you can approach the film in an appropriately sober, arthouse-y frame of mind, Nakagawa’s execution at least is absolutely top notch. Performances are excellent across the board (in addition to the aforementioned esteemed actors, there are also turns from such Toei notables as Yukie Kagawa and Hideo Murota), whilst Yoshikazu Yamazawa’s photography, highlighting the fertile-yet-foreboding topography of Japan’s mountainous Western coast, is beautiful, radiating an overpowering brown n’ green aura which seems to link the earth where the snakes crawl directly to the hallowed afterlife from whence the spectres emerge.

Shunsuke Kikuchi’s score meanwhile is richly evocative, and the carefully wrought production design includes a wealth of great “folky stuff” (songs, costumes, local festival customs) for Japanophiles to enjoy. Most importantly perhaps, Nakagawa manages to imbue the script’s off-the-peg structure with a handful of genuinely haunting, transcendental images which will live long in the viewer’s memory after viewing.

Born in 1905, the director was sixty-three years old as the time of this film’s production, and it would be all too easy to interpret the slower, more meditative direction Nakagawa takes here as the work of a filmmaker trying to establish himself as a more ‘serious’ voice in cinema during the twilight years of his career, after half a lifetime spent churning out rushed 60 minute programmers and battling the studios for budgets.

Unfortunately for us reviewers’ desperate need to try to impose a narrative onto everything however, Nakagawa rather kicked this idea in the nuts by immediately going on to make a brief but prolific comeback as a commercial director in 1969, directing five action/yakuza pictures for Toei in quick succession before, curiously, adopting the pseudonym “Ise Tsugio” in order to make what I presume to be a series of obscure, independently distributed pinku (erotic) titles (ubiquitous S&M / rope torture guru Oniroku Dan is credited as writer on at least one of them). All of these hit cinemas before the year was out, with the director’s anonymity surely somewhat undermined by the fact that they were all proudly produced by his own ‘Nakagawa Pro’.

So, once again, we return to the idea of ‘Kaidan Hebi-Onna’ seeming like a real one-off - an odd, inexplicable diversion in the paths followed by its director, writer and studio. It is what it is, I suppose - but thankfully for those with an interest in this particular overlooked corner of Japanese culture, what it is is very worthwhile indeed.


(1) An absolutely pivotal figure in the golden age of Toei exploitation, Kônami (1933-2012) went on to contribute to a huge number of the studio’s best and/or most outrageous films from the early ‘70s, including the entire ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ series, Sonny Chiba’s Yakuza Deka movies, the extraordinary Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope, the horrifying Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs and Kinji Fukasaku’s ‘Sympathy for the Underdog’ and ‘Graveyard of Honour’, to name but a few. 

(2) CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE DEPT: All background info on the production of this film is taken directly from Jonathan M. Hall’s well-researched commentary track on the 2007 Synapse DVD release.

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