B&W, 1968, 93 mins. 38 secs.
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Starring Yûko Hamada, Sachiko Meguro, Yachie Matsui, Mayumi Takahashi, Sei Hiraizumi
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Truly unlike anything else out there, this surreal horror fever dream from in-house Daiei director Noriaki Yuasa (the Gamera series) is an almost indescribable experience told from the point of view of a young girl experiencing an endless parade of flights of fancy. Never released on home video outside of Japan but a real stunner in its handful of U.S. repertory screenings, the film by the manga of Kazuo Umezu (The Drifting Classroom) manages to cover a lot of Japanese horror bases including monster mythology (both snake women and white-haired witches), the Gothic horror formula of an endangered orphan in a spooky house, and the psychedelic approach that would explode in the '70s, most famously now with House. Much has been made of the questionable attempts to pigeonhole this as a children's movie (given that it features multiple violent murder scenes and some simulated but shocking animal mayhem), though it's not so off the mark if you consider it as a wilder cousin to titles like Coraline, The House with the Clock in Its Walls, or the murder-happy entirety of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. The difference here, of course, is that the film itself is gloriously out of its mind.
Always looking on the bright side despite living in an orphanage, Sayuri (ten-year-old Matsui) seems to be making a positive turn in her life when she's claimed by her parents, Goro and Yuko Nanjo (Kitahara and Hamada), the latter staying mostly at home due to suffering what appears to be a strange form of amnesia. A scientist by trade with an insect and reptile lab inside the sprawling, somewhat sinister house, Goro tends to travel a lot and leaves his wife in the care of the ominous housekeeper (Meguro). Since we've already seen the family maid getting killed by a someone in gloves wielding a poisonous snake, it's obvious that things will get creepier from there -- especially when Sayuri meets her long-lost sister, the waxen-faced sadist Tamami (Takahashi), who insists the new arrival take over the old bedroom in the attic where someone keeps watching through the roof. Plagued by disturbing dreams, Sayuri is left to fend for herself when nobody believes her about the strange occurrences that soon explode into homicide and a lot of dark family secrets.
The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch rides or dies on the strength of its lead performance, and thankfully Matsui is up to the task here as a kind of pint-sized Candide stuck in a madhouse of horrors. It's too bad she didn't pursue much of an acting career because she's quite effective here, with Yuasa flinging all kinds of challenges at her including those outrageous dream sequences complete with knife fights against giant snakes, swirling masks, and of course the silver-haired witch, who doesn't come into play much until the second half when all starts to be gradually revealed. The film more or less falls under the umbrella of the horror genre, especially with its shadowy look obviously influenced by earlier Japanese ghost story films as well as Hammer imports, but it's also a quirky fairy tale of sorts complete with a moral about inner goodness and ugliness at the end that feels amusingly at odds with a story that's been reveling in images of physical grotesqueries for over an hour.
For its global English-friendly debut, Arrow Video has released this film on Blu-ray in both the U.S. and U.K. with a high-definition scan that makes for a great way to make this film's acquaintance. The source element has been kept in very good shape with only some minor damage here (mainly some brief, easily ignored hairline scratches in the opening orphanage scene). The LPCM Japanese mono audio is also satisfying and does justice to the wild theremin-heavy score by Shunsuke Kikuchi (Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell), with optional English subtitles provided. The film can also be played with a new audio commentary by the always welcome David Kalat, who's full of info about the film including some amusing tidbit about Yuasa's obvious Uzumaki-style obsession with stripes and spirals that spills over dramatically into this film as well as his own personal fashion choices. He also does a fine job of tying this film to other Japanese genre trends while anticipating the J-horror wave that would explode with Ringu and its successors. The big video extra here is "This Charming Woman" (27m40s) with manga and folklore scholar Zack Davisson covering the film's somewhat confusing authorship from page to screen and the story's use of European narrative tropes similar to the Brothers Grimm, albeit inverted here a bit with its depiction of maternal figures. Also included are the subtitled Japanese trailer and an image gallery, while the packaging features artwork by Mike Lee-Graham and, in the first pressing only, an insert booklet with an essay by Raffael Coronelli.
Reviewed on September 1, 2021