American audiences may not be familiar with the works of Nobou Nakagawa but the wide-ranging influence he held over his fellow countrymen Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu can be seen almost monthly at the box office as THE RING, THE GRUDGE, THE MESSENGERS, PULSE and innumerabl other genre films pack the Western multiplexes with a vast array of Eastern visual delights.
Nakagawa, who by some accounts shot nearly a hundred films in his career (the IMDB only credits him with 34) is really responsible for creating one magnum opus—JIGOKU. That film, which is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection, is the pinnacle of Golden Age Asian Horror—overflowing with profound and often nightmarish interpretations of the Buddhist idea of Hell (to fully appreciate the influence of Nakagawa’s vision, one would need to look no further than Robin Williams’ 1998 film WHAT DREAMS MAY COME).
Released in 1968, after a 6-year hiatus from filmmaking, SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE (Kaidan hebi-onna … aka Ghost Story of the Snake Woman) is considered to be something of a swan song for Nakagawa. He would go on to direct a few final films, even returning to the horror genre for his final production 1982’s KAIDAN IKITEIRU KOHEIJI. But it is SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE that truly marks the end of the master’s illustrious career.
Like many of the notable films in Nakagawa’s oeuvre, this production is a Kaidan (Ghost Story) and like so many of those films, JIGOKU included, the overriding story is simply pretext for the underlying themes that truly interested the Director. In the case of SNAKE WOMAN, those themes include social commentary on the class system and the Dharmic concept of Karma.
As the film opens we are given that the story takes place in the Meiji Period (1869-1912) on the outskirts of Japan. The Meiji Period is characterized historically as the turning point for the empire and the point in which Japan began to westernize. The film itself is set in a rural village with the traditional feudal system still in full effect.
A horse and buggy carry the feudal lord Chobei (Seizaburô Kawazu) home along a path beside his glorious fields. Aside the road the master is confronted by a man (Kô Nishimura), begging for mercy and the opportunity to continue to work the fields and repay his debt. Brutally bruised aside and left bloody by the side of the road he is helped back to his home by his wife Sue and his daughter Asa. Fatally wounded from the encounter Sue and Asa are forced into servitude for a period of 10-years to settle the the debit. Exploited and abused, it is not long before a minor transgression on the part of Sue results in her beating death. Left to fend for herself Asa too falls victim, this time to the Master’s heir, Takeo, and his sexual advances. Ashamed by what has transpired and admonished by her fiancé Sutematsu (Kunio Murai), Asa takes her own life. This course of events unleashes the fury of the dead, as the house is overrun by snakes and visited by blue hued spirits, all with one singular purpose—to exact revenge of the Master and his family.
Asian cult Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (KAIRO) once said that the difference between Western horror films and Eastern ones was simply that Western audiences are scared of ghosts attacking and in the East, the mere presence of the spirit—however impassive—was the greatest fear. SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE is a study in that philosophy of filmmaking. Very little happens in the film, which up until the third act is really nothing more sinister than a dramatic tale of one family’s suffering at the hands of unbridled serfdom. When the ghostly image of Sue begins to appear in the house, she is only seen in brief flashes shrouded in darkness and cloaked in a supernatural blue light. However her presence in the home is more than enough to unnerve the residents to a state of near anarchy. During the film’s climax as Kô Nishimura’s character returns to terrorize the master, he does little more than crawl across the floor repeatedly uttering “Even if I have to eat dirt, I’ll pay you back.”. It is effective in the context of the films tone, but to audiences accustomed to jump scares, orchestrated shocks and bloodcurdling terror, the moment is simply not earth-shattering.
SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE may be a minor film in Nakagawa’s long career, but it is worth consideration for it’s influence. Perhaps it would be best to describe it as the original “Grudge” film—although plenty others preceded it. The fact is, so few of Nakagawa’s films have made their way across the Pacific that it would a shame for fans of Asian Horror—especially the new breed of J-Horror filmmakers—not to take advantage of acclimating themselves with the works of the men who built the genre.
Is SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE going to change your life? The easy answer is, no. Is it going to help you appreciate something as simple as JU-ON or RINGU? Perhaps. Will it entertain you for 85-minutes? If you give the film the time and the benefit of the doubt then I believe that answer is a resounding yes. Whatever you do, consider that when this film was released in 1960, the comparable films stocking the B-movie houses of the west courtesy of folks like Roger and Sam Arkoff, or Wolf Rilla’s classic VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED don’t hold up too well today for anyone but those of us desperate for fits of nostalgia.