“They say that one evening, during a strong snowstorm, the spirit of the snow turned into the terrible snow witch, and roamed the mountains and plains. And if a man accidentally spied her, the snow woman immediately took possession of him.”
Man is not perfect. Even the gods themselves are not. That fact has been echoed through the ages, since the dawn of time. Many religions recognize this, including Christianity through the story of Adam and Eve, and the Shinto religion – one of the oldest and main religions in Japan – and their story of creation involving the founding god and goddess, Izanami and Izanagi. In Japanese mythology, there is a principal story, which is one of the core stories of Shinto: Izanami and Izanagi, and the former’s breaking of his promise to Izanami after he promised not to look at her after she had eaten the ‘fruit of the dead.’ The promise was broken, and the horrified Izanagi fled from to the world of the living from the underworld, all the while pursued by the rotten, maggot-filled Izanami! So, if even the gods and the man and woman placed on earth by the Christian God can break a promise, then what’s not to think that human beings can’t or won’t also?
In late 1964, Toho released Kwaidan, an anthology film comprising of four segments based on Japanese folk tales collected by Lafcadio Hearn from his works Shadowings (1900), Kotto (1902) and his seminal book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, published in 1904. Hearn collected together in these works, Japanese folktales from texts and even some examples passed down verbally, which had never been transcribed.
Kwaidan, the most expensive Japanese film until that point, (estimated ¥350,000,0000) when released theatrically, was a critical success, garnering a Special Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1965, and a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy Awards. Kwaidan is a breathtakingly surreal experience through the haunted landscape of Japan’s spirit world by the great Masaki Kobayashi, a filmmaker primarily known for his politically-tinged social dramas up until that point. In 1968, Daiei Films decided to film their own version of one of the segments in Kwaidan, “Yuki-onna,’’ naming their film Kaidan yukijoro (The Snow Woman, 1968), with direction by the very competent Tokuzo Tanka, and music by the famed Akira Ifukube.
Toho Pictures is most famously known as the studio who unleashed the legendary monster Godzilla unto the world. Daiei Films, having astutely noticed the financial success of Toho’s tokusatsu kaiju flicks, decided to come up with their own rubber-suited monster. Thus, in 1965, Gamera, the super-turtle, was born. Daiei Films, as seen by their version of The Snow Woman, were not above the continued copying of Toho’s successful films and formulas. Kobayashi’s Kwaidan followed Hearn’s story “Yuki-Onna’’ almost verbatim, which fit the short segments runtime of the segment perfectly. Daiei Films, on the other hand, needed to flesh out the story a bit more to a 79-minute runtime, and did so by expanding the basic narrative to include more horror pertaining to the Snow Woman, and showcasing the evil of man, all the while infusing a religious subplot, which gave the film a framework within to pronounce the importance of religious reverence, which permeated through many of Daiei’s films, including both the Daimajin and Yokai Monster films. Daiei Films were not afraid to broach different religions, beyond Shinto and Buddhism, as can be seen in the Daimajin films, where some Christian religious beliefs are showcased in the forms of crucifixions and the parting of the sea by the angry Majin (just as Moses had done in the Bible). Furthermore, even the basis of Majin’s – story is based on the Jewish parable of the Golem.
The Snow Woman, as produced by the Daiei studios factory, was laced with more trials and tribulations, having the Snow Woman character, who in human form was called Yuki (Shiho Fujimura), withstand the lustfulness of the evil local Bailiff, and endure the perversion of the social bureaucracy that was rife with corruption throughout the Edo period of feudal Japan. All the while reminding the viewer of the vast difference between the social classes, as exemplified through the sadistic actions of the vindictive Bailiff. While Yuki is introduced as the Snow Woman, she ultimately – after becoming infatuated with a young man, whose life she spares, because she finds him, so young and beautiful – becomes a fleshed-out woman, albeit still retaining her suppressed ghostly powers. Young Yokaku (Akira Ishihama) was the apprentice to the master sculptor Shigetomo (Tatsuo Hanabu), who while out together one winter’s day, are forced to seek refuge from a snowstorm in a boatman’s shack. That night, they are visited late by the beautiful, yet frightening, Snow Woman, clothed in a white kimono. She breathes her white-icy breath upon the sleeping Shigetomo, freezing him to death, but spares Yokaku – although not without a promise from him: to never speak of that night. Yokaku, after a period of convalescing, after the shock of that night has worn off, is apprehensive about assuming the work of his master, the sculpting from a tree the pair had been scouting for on that fateful night, a statue of the Goddess Kwanon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, to be displayed in the local shrine.
The Prior wishes Yokaku to complete the statue for the shrine but young Yokaku feels too inexperienced to accomplish the task. However, with the encouragement from his adopted mother, he agrees to undertake the job. Time passes and on a rainy day, a beautiful young woman seeks refuge from the pounding rain under Yokaku’s roof. Smitten by the young woman’s beauty, Yokaku’s mother invites her in from the rain. She is amid a long journey and is offered by the mother to stay with Yokaku and her for the night. During the evening, the elderly woman falls sick, and Yoki nurses her through the night, telling Yokaku the next morning that she is the daughter of two physicians and she knows an herbal cure. The next day the young pair, seemingly quite smitten with one another, go into the surrounding wooded area to find the medicinal herb, and during this time the pair questions each other about their lives and if either is betrothed. Yokaku asks if Yuki could stay on for just for a little while, to help the elderly woman through her recuperation. The young pairs growing affection for one another is sealed when Yokaku’s mother is brutally beaten by the local Bailiff after defending some village children from his riding crop after they caused him to fall from his horse. The Bailiff promises Yokaku, who had come to the aid of his mother, that he will pay for interfering in his sadistic beating of elderly woman! Dying from the severe beating, the elderly woman pleads with Yuki to marry Yokaku, and to love and serve him. Although uneasy with the situation imposed upon her, Yuki agrees to the dying woman’s wish and the couple get married and live happily, raising a son – but not without issues from the bailiff, who tries to undercut Yokaku’s appointment by the Prior to sculpting the goddess Kwanon for the shrine. The Bailiff also has lustful desires for the beautiful, seemingly ageless Yuki, looking the same as the day she set foot in the village, even after bearing a child. The Bailiff forces misfortunes onto the pair, to which they must overcome… but his rapist desire will not be quelled until he has his way with the beautiful Yuki. The local Shrine Maiden (Sen Hara), an elderly white-haired woman has come to realize that Yuki is a ghost during the Holiday Ritual, and has come to her home to try and kill her… this all occurring at the conclusion, as things begin to unravel the pair’s happiness, As the turmoil bubbles around them, Yokaku, while looking at Yuki’s face, as she makes the child new clothes, has his memory jogged, and begins to remember that fateful night, which may have been only a dream, when he was visited by the Snow Woman.
While the film obviously departs from both Toho’s Kwaidan “Yuki-Onna” episode and Hearn’s story, it keeps the basic underlying issue which is “the promise,” and the repercussions of breaking of it. The Hearn short story is based on Japanese folk tales, with some of his European literary liberties take, and its emphasis is on the Snow Woman, who was created by the howling winds, and if any man gazes upon her, they are doomed. But its underlying meaning is about the inability of man to keep a promise. Yuki, is a gentle creature, once she has found the love of a human man. However, if the promise the man made is broken, she will kill him. All religions and mythologies have the broken promise, as a basis for many tales. In the Christian Bible, the breaking of the promise by Adam to God mirrors to an extent the tale of the Snow Woman, and the European-born Hearn, although an atheist, was familiar with the Christian religion, having renounced it in his lifetime.
The beauty of this film is undeniable. While the ending is obvious to anyone who has seen the “Yuki-Onna” episode in Kwaidan, it does not make the whole knowing part any easier to swallow. The idea relationship between two people who are madly in love with each other invokes stirrings in one’s heart, but, knowing that man is not perfect, the ending, when mixing a mortal with a supernatural being, will ultimately end badly. One can only hope, that for this one instance that the perfection of love between a man and woman/ghost can exist on this earth, in a love for the ages, but, man is only all too human. All the while feeling oneself rooting for the love to withstand this storm and for the man, not to say the words. But, that’s too much to ask a man, who is not sure if it was all a fevered dream, and when he decides to confide in the one he loves, it’s with devastating consequences. The horror of this piece is not the Snow Woman and her taking the lives of the men in the film, the horror of this film, is in the death of perfection, like Adam and Eve, expelled from the Garden of Eden. The Snow Woman aka Yuki-onna is a ghost or spirit from Japanese Folktales, who through various incarnations is acknowledged sometimes for being thought to have been the spirit of someone, who had perished in a snowstorm, and at other times where she was manifested from the snow itself, during the most violent storms. The most famous tale of the Snow Woman or Snow Witch as she is sometimes referred to is the Hearn version!
The direction by Tokuzo Tanka is fluid and aided considerably by the fantastic cinematography by Chikashi Makiura, which – while economic for the most part – is boldly exotic and chilling in the scenes where the Snow Woman is the focus. Tanka is probably best known for directing many entries in the Zatoichi, the blind swordsman series of films, that was a Daiei Films regular film installment for years, starring the incomparable Shintraro Katsu. Makiura’s brilliant work can be seen most prominently in the Lone Wolf and Cub series of films, and in many other fine examples. The stirring, thoughtful, beautiful score is composed by the legendary Akira Ifukube, best known for his scores for many of the Godzilla films, along with the Daimajin trio of flicks, just a few from his illustrious career. The wonderful actress Shiho Fujimura, plays Yuki, and the beautiful, but deadly snow woman, with an understated reserve, that even in the form of the Snow Woman, is so well handled and controlled, that it allows the character to garner sympathy, up and through to the end of the film. Fujimura, is also equally brilliant in her portrayal of Lady Sayuri, in the second installment in the Daimajin series, Return of Daimajin (1966). The rest of the cast are outstanding and really enhance the believability and the compassion this film strives for. While Daiei Films had to realize the comparisons would be drawn between the two filmed versions of the Hearn story, their version is deep enough, and while more economic than the Yuki-Onna segment in Kwaidan is not any less brilliant! The Hearn story was also used for the basis of the wonderfully realized “Lover’s Vow” episode of the film Tales from The Darkside (1990).