Never has a character in a horror film taken more things on the chin than Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) in Noriaki Yuasa’s The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch. Think dissecting a frog in biology is bad? How about seeing a frog get ripped in half and then the person who did the ripping throws said frog in your face? Or waking up to a snake crawling across your neck, only be accused of crying wolf because the snake’s no longer there.
And the horrors don’t stop at reptiles. For Sayuri they begin the moment she’s told she’s going to be adopted, and by her biological parents, no less. The film waits a while before offering an explanation for why Sayuri had been living in an orphanage, but as much as this should be a joyous occasion, it’s almost a joke how bad the warning signs are. From pulling up to the house and finding a cop car and a hearse in the driveway, to learning that her parents’ maid died earlier that day, to being told that her mother (Yuko Hamada) was in a car accident six months ago and now has memory loss, any of these things would be enough to send a person packing except Sayuri can’t really do that. She’s a child, but while so many films are about escaping orphanages, things only go downhill for Sayuri after she leaves.
And still, it gets weirder. Suddenly Sayuri’s dad (Yoshirō Kitahara) gets called away for a job, and Sayuri’s mom sees this as the perfect opportunity to introduce Sayuri to her secret sister (Mayumi Takahashi)… If everything seems set up to make Sayuri’s mother the villain that because in Kazuo Umezu’s manga, Reptilia (specifically the first chapter, “Scared of Mama”) which The Snake Girl and the Silver Haired Witch is based on, she is. For the film adaptation, though, it’s Sayuri’s sister, Tamami, who becomes the primary antagonist.
More eerie than even the surreal dream sequences that honor the film’s manga roots and make Sayuri an unreliable narrator, though, is Sayuri’s voiceovers, which reveal an uncanny ability to find the silver lining to anything. It’s like the film tries to bring these disparate elements together and they never actually mesh, but that’s why the film is so fascinatingly off-putting. It’s this odd combination of Annie meets yōkai, with some nasty violence thrown in for good measure.
In terms of the film’s title, film historian, David Kalat, really hits it on the nose in his commentary. The film needed a Silver Haired Witch because Sayuri holds up too well against the Snake Woman. Kalat’s commentary is great as well for understanding what exactly makes The Snake Girl and the Silver Haired Witch such a singular movie, by systemically going through the ways in which it differs and shares traits with Japanese ghost stories, monster movies (Yuasa was responsible for directing most of the Gamera movies), and J-horror.
Other bonus features include a featurette by manga and folklore scholar, Zack Davisson, in which he goes over the influence that Grimm’s Fairy Tales had on the movie, and a booklet essay by Raffael Coronelli, where he talks about the association between snakes and possession.
The Snake Girl and the Silver Haired Witch is an odd duck, but that doesn’t mean genre fans will want to miss it. The film is available on Blu-Ray now from Arrow Films.