Nobuo Nakagawa was the Kiyoshi Kurosawa of his day; a master of the horror genre with a unique style that pretty much set the stage for the way horror films would be made well into the ’70s. Starting at Shintoho in the 1950s, he put his indelible stamp on the genre with classics like Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (1959) and Jigoku (1960), both films that married unique camera work and color palettes to a genre better known as a utilitarian way to fight the summer heat (they were supposed to give you chills, literally). With Snake Woman’s Curse, made for Toei in 1968—a time when matinee audiences were more concerned with yokai and daikaiju than traditional horror—Nakagawa brought back both his liquid camera work and eye for effects, and, as screen writer, all the hallmarks of the traditional Japanese horror film.
Traditional kaidan (ghost stories), many based on folktales, generally concern a woman who, wronged in life, returns from the dead to haunt the man who wronged her. Many of these were set in the Edo era (1603-1868), a time when women were largely oppressed in Japanese society. In these stories, women—pushed to the margins of society in terms of rights and presence—become the “other,” and are thus associated with the uncanny and supernatural, another kind of “other.” Snake Woman’s Curse takes place during the Meiji era (1868-1912), a time when Japan was rapidly modernizing and emerging from its feudal past. However, women were still treated shabbily, the traditions of the Edo era codified into law.
After sharecropper farmer Yasuke dies, his debts are passed on to his wife, Sue, and comely adult daughter, Asa, who are forced to move into the landlord’s house and work directly for him. Sue soon finds herself the object of the landlord’s affections, much to the dismay of both her and the landlord’s wife, who treats her ruthlessly. Asa is then targeted by the son of the landlord, who sees in her a quick and consequence-free lay. Soon Sue, sick with the same ailment that killed her husband, dies, and Asa, unable to contain her grief at the death of her parents and the repeated rapes by the landlord’s son, kills herself.
To the wealthy land owners of the film, the farmers are little more than pests, or beasts to exploit. Whether for the work they produce or for their bodies, they exist to service the landlords, or so they would like to believe. However, pushed to the margins, these poor farmers—particularly the women—are thus transformed into obake, ghosts, and begin to haunt the landlord and his son. The landlord’s son marries soon after Asa’s suicide, and his guilt is transferred to his own wife, whom he hallucinates as having huge snake scales instead of skin. Although higher in society than the farmers, the new wife is still female, and thus also an “other” in the eyes of the son.
Snake Woman’s Curse was the (snake’s) tail end of the classic kaidan genre. However, it was a wronged woman named Sadako who would bring this traditional element back to Japanese horror in the form of Ringu (1998), the popularity of which suggests that Japan may still have some issues of sexual equality left to address.