The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: November 23, 2021
Audio: Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0
Run Time: 81:57
Director: Noriaki Yuasa
A young girl named Sayuri is reunited with her estranged family after years in an orphanage – but trouble lurks within the walls of the large family home. Her mother is an amnesiac after a car accident six months earlier, her sullen sister is confined to the attic, and a young housemaid dies inexplicably of a heart attack just before Sayuri arrives. Is it all connected to her father’s work studying venomous snakes? And is the fanged, serpentine figure that haunts Sayuri’s dreams the same one spying on her through holes in the wall? (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Following the prolonged success of Toei’s Godzilla movies, rival studio Daiei created a rival kaiju series around a new giant monster named Gamera. Seven of the eight Gamera movies released between 1965-1980 were directed or co-directed by Noriaki Yuasa (he’s credited as ‘effects director’ on 1966’s Gamera vs. Barugon and Shigeo Tanaka is credited as ‘director’). Between those films he made a unique fantasy horror film called Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968), which was met with disinterest from critics and consumers*, sending the director back to the Gamera mines. Rarely seen outside of Japan, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a tokusatsu fairytale, rather than a straight horror story, tinged with folk story charms and largely aimed at children, like Daiei’s Yokai series and the Gamera sequels (the film was actually presented at the bottom of a Japanese theatrical double-bill with Yoshiyuki Kuroda’s The Great Yokai War [Japanese: Yôkai daisensô] in 1968. Even so, Yuasa doesn’t play down to his young audience, instead generating a genuinely eerie, adult-friendly (though dated) tone, like that found in other countries’ and era’s fairytale horror movies, like Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (Spanish: El laberinto del fauno, 2006).
The film was adapted by screenwriter Kimiyuki Hasegawa from a 1966 manga called Hebi shōjo (“snake girl”) in Japan and Reptilia when it was reissued in North America by IDW in 2007. It was written and illustrated by Kazuo Umezu, who was a pioneer in Japanese horror comics and a major influence on pop culture’s current favorite horror manga writer/artist, Junji Ito. Umezu’s other work includes Cat-Eyed Boy (Japanese: Nekome Kozō; Shōnen Gahōsha Magazine, 1967), which was adapted into an anime series that year and a 2006 live-action movie, Orochi (Shogakukan's Weekly Shōnen Sunday, 1969), which was adapted into a 2008 live-action movie, and God’s Left Hand, Devil’s Right Hand (Japanese: Kami no Hidarite, Akuma no Migite; Big Comic Spirits, 1986), which was made into a live-action movie in 2006.
The adaptation isn’t as strictly page-to-screen as modern, Hollywood studio comic book spectacles, like Sin City (2005) or 300 (2006), but Yuasa, cinematographer Akira Uehara, and art director Tomohisa Yano still make a concerted effort to recreate the look of Umezu’s highly stylized pen & ink drawings. The high-contrast black & white photography and chalky monster make-up are augmented with simple, but effective overlapping kaleidoscopic and spirographic effects. These double as budget-conscious tricks to create the dream-like atmosphere whenever supernatural wackiness breaks out, thus giving Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch its specific, mostly kid-friendly scare quality. One notable difference is that the manga is more gruesome than the movie, though not nearly as nasty as some of the other Umezu comics I’ve found and read for this review – God’s Left Hand, Devil’s Right Hand, in particular. The violence that is included would be considered too spicy for American child audiences in 1968, but is in keeping with Yuasa's surprisingly bloody Gamera sequels.
* Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia: Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films, by Thomas & Yuko Mihara Weisser (Vital Books, 1997)
As I mentioned above, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch was barely released outside of Japan. There was a Japanese-language widescreen DVD, which was fan-subbed and shared as a bootleg. Otherwise, there has been no option I can find for viewing an English-friendly version of the film until Arrow got their hands on it for this Blu-ray debut. As in the case of their other Daisei discs, Arrow was handed a complete HD scan from Kadokawa Studios, which they cleaned-up and regraded at R3Store Studios in London. The resulting 2.35:1, 1080p, black & white transfer is on the higher end of the quality spectrum. The film shows its age and its low-budget optical tricks can grey-out the otherwise good gradient levels, but there are few print damage artifacts (usually in the form of white vertical scratches/mold), details are as crisp as Akira Uehara’s photography allows, and grain levels are even, exhibiting only occasionally fuzzy edges/blends.
Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is presented in its original Japanese mono and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. The sound quality is surprisingly crisp with a low sound-floor and little distortion, aside from the loudest moments, which buzz just a tad. Effects work is minimal, outside of supernatural happenings, though those are also relatively thin. It’s minimal without being weak. Shunsuke Kikuchi’s score dances through the dueling fairytale and horror tones with spooky, theremin-supported strings and mellow, kid’s film melodies. The music fares best of all track elements.
Commentary with film historian David Kalat – The author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series (McFarland & Company, 2010) offers some much needed background information on this once impossible to see film. The track examines the ways the film does and doesn’t match genre traditions, looks at the careers of Noriaki Yuasa and Kazuo Umezu, as well as other cast & crew members, and discusses the behind-the-scenes story, including similarities to the manga and the fact that the film was sort of a reward to Yuasa for making the studio so much money directing Gamera movies.
This Charming Woman (27:40) – Manga and folklore scholar Zack Davisson discusses the history of Japanese monster mythology, focusing largely on snake-women hybrids, the other countries they drew from, and the way these stories were integrated into comics and movies, like Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch. He also talks about the ways Yuasa’s sensibilities informed the adaptation.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.