Review Date: June 15, 2008
Released by: Synapse Films
Release date: 8/28/2007
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
“Landlord. Even if I have to eat dirt, I’ll pay you back.”
We open in a rural part of Japan’s northern coastline sometime in the late 19th century, a desperately poor area where peasants try to eke out a meager living working the land. Chobei Onuma (Seizaburô Kawazu
) is a major landowner who presides over a massive estate where tenant farmers slave away while their wives and daughters work in sweatshop conditions weaving textiles. One day while driving into town in his horse-drawn carriage, Onuma is followed by an old man named Yasuke (Kô Nishimura
), one of his tenants. The man owes his landlord a huge sum of money and Onuma has been planning on repossessing his plot. Running alongside the carriage, Yasuke begs his master to let him keep farming, but Onuma ignores him. Yasuke falls and splits his head open, and his family rushes him back to their house where he later dies.
Still owing a massive debt, Yasuke’s widow Sue (Chiaki Tsukioka
) and grown daughter Asa (Sachiko Kuwahara
) are put to work elsewhere on the estate. Sue labors under degrading conditions in the family’s mansion, while Asa weaves textiles. One day, while trying to protect the life of a snake that the family members wanted their servants to kill, Sue is pushed over and mortally injured by Onuma. Then Onuma’s son Takeo (Shingo Yamashiro
) sends Asa on an errand into the village, but follows her and attacks her on the road, raping her. Traumatized by the loss of her virtue, Asa kills herself.
As this has been going on, the Onuma family has been preparing for Takeo’s wedding. On the day of the ceremony Asa’s grief-stricken fiancée, a young farmer named Sutematsu (Kunio Murai
), barges in and tries to kill the groom. When he fails he runs into the mountains, falling off a cliff to his death after a posse gets on his trail. But all is not as it seems, and it isn’t long before Chobei Onuma and his family are visited by the vengeful spirits of the dead, seeking to extract vengeance for the wrongs committed against them in life.
Released in 1968 by Japan’s Toei Studios, and helmed by noted horror director Nobuo Nakagawa (most famous for the grotesque classic Jigoku
), Snake Woman’s Curse
is an eerie and effective ghost story that makes excellent use of framing, lighting and beautiful, desolate locations. The film delivers the slow and deliberate pace needed to establish the mood of a proper supernatural tale.
To understand much of what is depicted in Snake Woman's Curse
, it is helpful to also have an understanding of the period of Japanese history in which it takes place. For centuries beforehand, Japan and its people had been closed off from foreigners to such an extent that even the term "isolationist" seems too mild to describe it. Aside from some small, carefully monitored trading outposts in the city of Nagasaki, foreign nationals were barred from setting foot in the Japanese home islands, and those that tried were imprisoned or even killed. Japan's rulers were so concerned about their own citizens interacting with the outside world that by law fishing boats had to be built with unseaworthy designs which limited them to the coastal waters immediately surrounding Japan. This long period of isolation began to end in 1854 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy negotiated a trade treaty (more or less at gunpoint), and then another treaty the following year establishing diplomatic ties with the United States. Within five years Japan had concluded similar treaties with other Western powers, and in 1868 there began the "Meiji Restoration", a period of rapid industrialization, military modernization and political and judicial reform. Japan subsequently grew so powerful, so quickly, that in 1895 they were able to seize Taiwan during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), defeat the once mighty Russians in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and drive the Germans out of the Pacific during World War I (1914-1918).
Behind the great changes of the Meiji era, parts of Japan remained stubbornly stuck in the agrarian times of the past. It is this Japan that is shown in Snake Woman's Curse
. For the tenant farmers slaving away, industrialization doesn't bring benefits, but rather, further impoverishment, as Yasuke's farm is taken away to make room for silk cultivation and Asa is forced to slave away in a sweatshop weaving fabric. Industrialization brought all of its benefits to Japan (as well as all its vices, including pollution, labor problems and hyper-militarism), but ultimately agriculture would still remain important enough in Japanese society for the landowning classes to remain empowered until after World War II, when land reform programs were initiated (a development that played a huge but usually unacknowledged part in Japan's postwar economic expansion). The Japanese countryside of Snake Woman’s Curse
is one that is slowly modernizing. Both Chobei Onuma and his son wear traditional Japanese garb most of the time, but do occasionally put on western clothing as well. When arriving at the estate to discuss the terms of Takeo’s impending marriage, the village mayor mentions that he was a rebel soldier during the Satsuma rebellion of 1877, a bloody civil conflict in which ex-samurai revolted against the modernization and westernization of the country.
But despite the social commentary and history lesson that is held within the film’s construction, ultimately the movie’s historical aspects are of less concern to Western viewers than are its horror elements, which squarely deliver. The movie is an eerie, often suspenseful and frequently chilling example of Japanese horror cinema at its peak of creativity.
Snake Woman’s Curse
is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is enhanced for 16x9 displays. Overall the picture looks quite beautiful, with excellently rendered colors and a sharp, clear picture. Struck from the original negative, the transfer shows few signs of major print damage, although moderate speckling can be seen on many occasions.
The only audio option is the film’s original Japanese language, and it is a fine, undistinguished Mono soundtrack that does its job well. Optional English subtitles are provided.
The primary extra here is a commentary track with Japanese scholar Jonathan M. Hall. Though perhaps overly intellectual, his insights into Nakagawa’s filmmaking style are both informative and fascinating, and Western viewers who don’t know much about the history of Japan will benefit from his enlightening comments about Japan’s economic and social development during the Meiji period. Unfortunately, Hall only comments over certain sections of the movie. The first thirty minutes of the feature he talks regularly, but from there another voice jumps in and instructs to skip ahead to certain chapters in order to hear the rest of the commentary. Overall Hall’s discussion couldn’t occupy much more than half the film’s running time.
The next extra is a biography of Nabuo Nakagawa, and an accompanying poster gallery that gives us tantalizing glimpses of some of his obscure horror films from the 1950’s, films with titles like The Vampire Man
and Black Cat Mansion
The extras are finished off with the original Japanese theatrical trailer (which seems to contain a few snippets of footage not found in the actual movie) and some informative liner notes by one Alexander Jacoby.
Snake Woman’s Curse
has remained almost unseen outside of Japan for seemingly no other reason than that an English dubbed or subtitled version has never been available. This DVD from Synapse and the now defunct Panik House not only provides that translation, but also gives the film a fantastic visual restoration that brings out its visual beauty. Although the on again/off again audio commentary is a bit of a letdown, this is a very worthwhile release that is a must-have for fans of Japanese horror.
Movie – B+
Image Quality – A-
Sound – B
Supplements – B
- Running Time – 1 hour 25 minutes
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- Japanese 2.0 Mono
- English subtitles
- Audio commentary by Jonathan M. Hall
- Nabuo Nakagawa biography and poster gallery
- Theatrical trailer
- Liner notes