Director Noriaki Yuasa was the creative force behind Daiei Film Company’s Gamera franchise, so a film adaptation of a manga about rival sisters may seem like an unorthodox choice for Yuasa. However Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968) benefits enormously from Yuasa’s experience with special effects. The surrealist dream sequences are a particular highlight from the film that showcase Yuasa’s talents nicely.
The story of a Sayuri (Yachie Matsui), an girl reunited with her biological family, and her battles with her snake-like sister Tamami (Mayumi Takahashi) and a witch serve as a fantastic metaphor for the traumas of adoption, abandonment, and sibling rivalry. Tonally, the film is pulpy, but its images and the suspense that holds the narrative together are all drawn from a child’s perspective. Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a horror film for kids.
The real scares in this film are all centered around very real and very urgent anxieties, such as being locked alone in an attic, being stalked, being distrusted, etc. Then there are the scares that live firmly within the protagonist’s subjective reality like the swarms of spiders descending from the ceiling, the witch at the window, and of course the beautiful dream sequences.
These dream sequences have little more technical innovation or prowess than what one might see in a William Castle production, but they carry a truth to them. If, as a viewer, you can recall in detail the irrationality of childhood fears and their bizarre manifestation within the imagination, then you’ll begin to understand why I consider these sequences beautiful. The primitivism of the special effects dispels real fantasy, conjuring instead a child’s sense of understanding, recalling that juvenile belief that one can scare one’s friends with something like a rubber snake. The dreams in Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch are built out of a child’s psyche just as much as they are of a child’s toy box.
Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is weird, it’s fun, and it operates on a kind of fanciful dream logic. All these different components are why this film remains a classic. Yuasa’s visuals are inventive and his direction is taut, all that remains is a proper restoration so that these images can be seen once more the way that they were originally intended.