The Snake Woman’s Curse was Japan’s Toei Studios’ attempt to break into the horror market, and although it appeared in 1968 it is (compared to more modern Japanese horror) very much in the pattern of a traditional Japanese ghost story or kwaidan. Director Nobuo Nakagawa had already made a reputation for himself as a director of that type of horror movie. The Snake Woman’s Curse adds to this a very strong element of political and social criticism.
It is set during the Meiji period (which lasted from 1868 to 1912). This was a period of rapid modernisation and westernisation but this has had only a limited impact in the area in which the events of the film take place, one of the more backward parts of the country. The head of the Ônuma family still exercises an almost feudal level of control over his tenant farmers, but on the other hand the economy of this area is moving from traditional farming to rural industry based on silk weaving, and the family runs a silk weaving factory based on the back-breaking labour of several dozen poorly paid and badly exploited women. The movie opens with one of these tenant farmers, Yasuke, begging his Ônuma for more time to repay a debt so as to avoid having his farm seized, but his appeal is contemptuously rejected. He is knocked into a ditch by the landlord’s carriage and dies shortly thereafter.
The man’s wife Sue and daughter Asa have their farm taken away from them and must face a future of ten years of unpaid labour in the silk factory in order to discharge the debt. The old master’s much younger wife, Masae, suspects Sue of having designs upon her husband, while the young master really does have designs on Asa. Yasuke’s whole family is destined for destruction as a result of these machinations, but their ghosts will wreak a terrible vengeance.
As a ghost story the movie works fairly well. The political elements are the major weaknesses. Not that there’s anything wrong with using horror for such purposes, but the politics is handled clumsily. Everything is black or white, the rich are mere monsters, the peasants are noble and virtuous. Modernisation and industry are bad, traditional values and farming are good. Most Japanese exploitation films of the 70s also had strong political overtones but the younger directors emerging during that period seemed to be able to include political messages with some real wit and without becoming strident and preachy, faults that are unfortunately very apparent in The Snake Woman’s Curse.
The strength of the film is its visual power. It’s an exceptionally well made and beautifully shot movie, without any B-movie feel to it. The acting is also impressive. Akemi Negishi (who went on to appear in some of the most memorable Japanese exploitation movies of the 70s) is particularly good as Masae, making her a frighteningly malignant figure but achieving this effect with great subtlety. She is beautiful and elegant and utterly evil and ruthless.
The Snake Woman’s Curse moves along at a fairly sedate pace, and those accustomed to later Japanese movies may be surprised at the complete lack of gore and also of sex and nudity. While the pace is leisurely the tension is built up skillfully and there’s certainly no lack of entertainment value here. There’s also no lack of artistic competence and if you can overlook the heavy handed political message it’s a movie worth seeing. It’s not likely to become one of my favourites but I would still recommend it with some reservations, especially if you enjoy the more traditional type of Japanese horror film, such as Masaki Kobayashi’s brilliant 1964 opus Kwaidan (although it has to be said that it’s not in the same league as that magnificent film).
The Synapse DVD looks great and includes a moderately informative commentary track.