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Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Snow Woman (1968) review


Fujimura Shiho (Yuki), Ishihama Akira (Yosaku), Hasegawa Machiko (Okugata), Naito Taketoshi (Governor Mino Gonnokami), Suga Fujio (Land Steward Jito-dono), Shimizu Masao (Jiun), Suzuki Mizuho (Gyokei), Hara Sen (Shaman), Hanabu Tatsuo (Shigetomo)

Directed by Tanaka Tokuzo

The Short Version: An absolutely stunning cinematic interpretation of the 'Snow Woman' folktale previously popularized in condensed format by Kobayashi in KWAIDAN (1964) is brought to the screen from chambara helmer, Tanaka Tokuzo. Daiei was nearing bankruptcy, but you wouldn't know it from the meticulous set design and impressive special effects on display. Equal parts horror and formulaic jidaigeki, Tanaka's direction is operatic overload, highlighted by Kurokawa Shunji's lighting effects. Aside from the technical pluses, viewers will be drawn into the picture by an engrossing performance from Fujimura Shiho as the title cold-hearted woman. The melancholic nature of Lafcadio Hearn's source material is matched by the somber beats of Ifukube Akira. Among the best of the Nippon Gothics, THE SNOW WOMAN is deathly cold to the touch, but warm in its heart and soul.

Master sculptor Shigetomo and his young, devoted disciple Yosaku are on a mountain trip to find the perfect tree to sculpt a Bodhisattva statue for the Kokubun-ji Temple. Caught in a massive snow storm, the two men take shelter in an abandoned cabin. Later that night, they are visited by a ghostly woman. Extracting the life essence of Shigetomo, the vampiric snow woman turns to the younger acolyte. Entranced by his innocence, the creature will let him live so long as he never repeats what he has seen; should he do so, she will appear and kill him immediately. Months pass and Spring has come. Yosaku is in the process of building his master's prized statue when a strange woman comes into his life....

There is so much to admire in Tanaka Tokuzo's ice-cold tale of dramatic horror, a re-telling of 'The Woman of the Snow' segment in Masaki Kobayashi's classic horror movie, KWAIDAN (1964). With origins dating back to the 1300s, the haunted Snow Woman (Yuki Onna) has many variations in both looks and legends. The version that is the most popular is the one written by, ironically enough, a European named Lafcadio Hearn. Also known under a Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo, Hearn found fame for his writings on Japanese folklore, making the country his home during the last 14 years of his life. His writings remain influential in Japanese popular culture. This famous story gets expanded in a substantial way by Tanaka Tokuzo, formerly an AD of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, and a director whose name will be familiar to fans of film series' like ZATOICHI and SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH.

Yahiro Fuji's script expands on the tale, adding an evil land steward named Jito, the sort of despicable antagonist you'd find in all your finer samurai movies. Thankfully, this development works in the film's favor. Loss, melancholy, and compassion are the prime emotional ingredients of Hearn's original story from 1905 and are adopted faithfully for this film version. Introducing a vile character to play off the portent of evil associated with the Yokai living among the humans creates an additional conflict for the audience to digest; and even at 79 minutes, the filmmakers give you plenty to chew on.

Remarkably, scripter Yahiro Fuji uses the oppressive Jito to great success, making the Snow Vampire an unlikely heroine; even after she has killed Yosaku's revered master, Shigetomo, at the film's outset. While the Yokai is simply adhering to its supernatural nature (when it's not showing signs of nobler human sensibilities), Jito is an unwavering, calculatingly evil savage.

Examples of Jito's less than refined mannerisms are displayed right after we see him onscreen for the first time, beating an old woman to death, later showing no remorse for the action. Not long after, Jito desires Yosaku's wife and devises an elaborate plot to take her away from him. What the corrupt Jito doesn't realize is the woman he wants is cold--so cold, she has the ability to chill a man to the bone.... literally.

It's at this point, after Yosaku is framed, that the script veers into other directions, testing Yosaku's mettle through a series of threats and mental tortures; and humanizing the Yokai, even giving her spiritual connotations at one point. The way the script explores the Yosaku character parallels the expositional flourishes afforded Yuki--her humanization, and her propensity for evil; or, depending on the situation, justice. The script gives its human villains some subtle nuances, too.

Part of Jito's plan to get rid of the virtuous Yosaku is by hiring a sculptor from the city named Gyokei to be in direct competition with him in building a Bodhisattva statue for the local temple. Unlike Yosaku, who is doing his work by himself, Gyokei is armed with a cadre of assistants. There's this dialog about people from the country not being as intellectually sound as those from the city. This talk proves retroactive later in the film once the temple priests view the two men's works of art. As a protagonist, Yosaku might not be much of a hero, but he's a man of principle; this doesn't go unnoticed by his wife, whom he doesn't realize is the Snow Woman who spared him five years earlier.

Realizing she must save her husband from arrest and imminent death, she learns the son of Governor Mino Gonnokami is gravely ill; none of the renowned physicians have been able to cure his ailment. Using her powers to save as opposed to kill, Yuki nearly dies from exhaustion saving the boy. This underscores the earlier statement regarding intellectualism versus an individual's resolve, their fortitude. Yosaku is able to do on his own what an entire team of artists failed to accomplish. Meanwhile, Yuki, despite her supernatural origins, risks her own life to save the life of a child; a sacrifice not shared by the previous previous doctors'. This won't be the only time Yuki is overcome by compassion. If you're familiar with the tale, you'll know what that is. Speaking of which.....

Yosaku is desperate to finish his statue but cannot complete the face. Upon seeing Yuki in a weakened state hugging their son, he sees the final touches of his artistry he needs in her teary-eyed visage. He sees the compassion his statue sorely lacks. This is the spiritual context mentioned above--the Yokai is evil, but Yosaku's righteousness and purity has melted away some of that icy interior. How ironic that something instinctively cold could possess the warmth required for something innately merciful. It is compassion, even more so than justice, that triumphs over evil, even if it, too, comes with a price.

Elsewhere, the writer adds an elder lady Shaman to remind you of the Yokai's vampiric nature in case you'd forgotten. Kind of an unnecessary character, her inclusion is a bit of foreshadowing, acting mainly as a momentary plot device for the familiar finale as per the source material.  

With all this praise for the director, the script, and the actors who bring the vision to life, there's something to be said of the exceptional special effects. There are none of the requisite in-camera tricks of the YOTSUYA KAIDAN variety. Opticals and other visual trickery bring the apparitional aspects to life. The snow effects combined with matte painting are very impressive. It's a shame director Tanaka didn't do more films in this genre.

The horror sequences with the Yuki Onna are elaborate in their design. Kurokawa Shunji uses lighting effects and shadow to create both an operatic mood and convey emotion--giving the audience an even more complicated version of the Snow Woman. Fujimura Shiho does a fabulous job, graduating with honors from the school of tragic monsters--alongside the likes of the Bride of Frankenstein and certain interpretations of the classic vampire.

You'd think Tanaka, who worked primarily in Chambara pictures, was an old hand at horror. His work here is comparable to the resume of celebrated genre filmmaker, Nobuo Nakagawa. Tanaka did at least one other horror-fantasy picture, the epic THE DEMON OF MOUNT OE (1960)--another collaboration with writer Yahiro Fuji and acting regulars Katsu Shintaro, Raizo Ichikawa, Hasegawa Kazuo and Kojiro Hongo.

Daiei was facing a number of setbacks at that time including mounting debt and the loss of one of their biggest stars, Raizo Ichikawa, to rectal cancer in 1969. The company had produced a number of notable, and expensive movies that garnered Japanese cinema a lot of attention on the international scene including titles like GATE OF HELL (1953), BUDDHA (1961), the DAIMAJIN trilogy and GAMERA series. Despite their decline, THE SNOW WOMAN is one of Daiei's most polished pictures before their dissolution in 1971.

For vintage Japanese horror, THE SNOW WOMAN (1968) is sturdy enough to be spoken of in the same breath as Nakagawa's version of THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA (1959) and Shindo's KURONEKO (1968), to name two classic examples. Engrossing from beginning to end, Tanaka Tokuzo and crew deliver a blizzard of intriguing themes and ideas that seek to do more than freeze your blood.

You can order the film (pre-order, shipping on February 23rd, 2016) here at SamuraiDVD.

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