Posts Tagged 'samurai'

Snake Woman’s Curse (1968)

Alex Kerr argues that one of the main difference between Japanese and Chinese literature is that while Chinese literature is focused primarily on justice, Japanese lit is focused on debt. A sweeping generalization, yes, but there’s a grain of truth there. Watch any Hong Kong kung fu flick and nine times out of ten the plot will be about a pure, if physically fit, guy who runs afoul of some evil corrupt gangster/warlord/high-ranking bureaucrat. The hero loses face and frequently a trusted friend or mentor, but in the end the baddie gets his ass kicked and justice is restored. Watch any Japanese yakuza/samurai flick and nine times out ten it’s about a low level peon with integrity who has to juggle his sense of morality with his obligations to his group and superiors. The film ends with either the main character getting killed or disillusioned with the cupidity of his superiors.

Rarely have I seen the dichotomy as vividly illustrated as with Nobuo Nakagawa’s Snake Woman’s Curse. The film’s set in the waning days of the Edo period, in a backwater feudal estate. The landowners – the Onuma clan – are greedy, corrupt landlords, utterly indifferent to the suffering of the farmers tilling their field. One such farmer, Yasuke, grown too sick with TB to farm and has fallen deep into debt. At his funeral, Onuma orders that their ramshackle house be torn down and that his attractive wife, Sutematsu, and even more attractive daughter Asa work off their debt at their estate. The Onuma’s wife, fearing that her husband might seduce (i.e. rape) the beleaguered Sutematsu, she has her beaten for stealing an egg. The woman eventually dies. Asa gets raped by landlord’s thuggish son, ruining any hope of getting married. She eventually kills herself. No Jet Li-style ass-kicking here. No earthly justice.

Instead, justice is meted out in the form supernatural visitations. Onuma, his wife, and his son start having hallucinations of the dead family and, for some reason never really made clear, snakes. It really bums them out, so much so that they eventually off themselves. This has to be the most passive aggressive revenge drama I’ve ever seen. The poor family suffers all sorts of pain and indignities, but that’s OK in the long run because the landlord will feel really bad about it. It’s the sort of pathetic fatalism that bullied kid might dream of while planning a suicide.

Yes, this is a ghost movie in the spirit of Nakagawa’s Jigoku. And there’s some nicely surreal moments, like when Onuma’s son’s new bride turns slowly into a snake. Yet this strangely disempowering ending felt at odds with other elements in the movie. Nakagawa imbues the movie such a loathing for the rich upper class here that you are practically begging for a Marxist revolution. His critique of feudal economic disparity and in particular the hierarchical mindset that still shapes Japanese culture today was pointed and filled with barely contained rage. I kept hoping that the daughter would take the straight razor she commits suicide with and slash the landlord’s throat in his sleep. But no. The family had debt, as unjust as it might have been, and they paid it off with their lives.

June 2023

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