Closely associated with literary adaptation, Shiro Toyoda had been wanting to adapt Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country (雪国) since its serialisation and apparently spent four years preparing his treatment ahead of the 1957 film starring Ryo Ikebe as the solipsistic aesthete at the novel’s centre. Characteristically, however, he takes several liberties with the source material, notably introducing an entirely different conclusion which perhaps helps in re-centring the tale away from the hero Shimamura to the melancholy geisha who apparently falls for him because of his intense loneliness.
A brief reference to a failed military insurrection in Manchuria sets us firmly in the mid-1930s as do repeated mentions of the ongoing depression which causes additional anxiety to local business owners in a small holiday resort town. Mimicking the novel’s famous opening, Toyoda opens with a POV shot of a train exiting a tunnel into the snow-covered landscape, the hero Shimamura (Ryo Ikebe) sitting sadly gazing out of a window and eventually captivated by the reflection of a young woman devotedly caring for a young man who appears to be in poor health. Meanwhile, another young woman, Komako (Keiko Kishi), gazes at her own reflection in a train station window, waiting once again as if unable to depart. As we discover, Shimamura has returned with the intention of seeing Komako with whom he’d struck up a relationship during a summer trip but is somewhat disappointed to learn that she has since become a geisha.
In a flashback to their first meeting, Komako asks Shimamura if he has come for “escape”, a question he doesn’t exactly answer while petulantly complaining about his lack of artistic success as someone who paints pictures apparently out of step with his times. When the head of the local commerce association tries to involve him in conversation about the failed insurrection, he bluntly tells him that he’s an artist and as such has no interest in such things, but it does indeed seem that he is looking for some kind of escape from the turbulent times, expressing that here the war seems very far away as does “the depression”. Komako, a more modern and perhaps prophetic figure than it might at first seem, is the only one to bring up the war directly speculating that it may be about to intensify while the frustrated affair between the two seems to be informed by the mounting tensions against which they are attempting to live their lives.
Rather self-absorbed, Shimamura in a sense may even identify with Komako explaining that he too has a “patron” and implying that his flight is perhaps a response to his sense of powerlessness, that he feels constrained by his financial dependency presumably on his father-in-law though his relative economic superiority which leads Komako to frequently remark on his “extravagance” obviously affords him the freedom to make these random solo trips to ski resorts and indulge his career as a painter regardless of its capacity to support himself and his family. Komako must know on some level that the relationship is a fantasy, yet she believes in it enough to end her connection with an elderly patron on suspecting that she is carrying Shimamura’s child only to have her hopes dashed when he does not turn up for a local festival as promised with the consequence that all of her dependents are turfed out of the home he had provided for her.
Komako is not “free” in the same way that Shimamura evidently is, her entire life dictated by the fact that she is poor and female. Fostered by a shamisen teacher, she may have been technically engaged to the young man, Yukio (Akira Nakamura), Shimamura saw on the train being cared for by Yoko (Kaoru Yachigusa), Komako’s foster sister in love with him herself, but intensely resents the burdens she is expected to bear quite literally with her body. She later tells Shimamura that she didn’t become a geisha for Yukio in order to pay his medical bills but out of a sense of obligation, while she is also responsible for her birth family, the now bedridden shamisen teacher, and Yoko who intensely resents her for her callous treatment of Yukio and generally “dissolute”, selfish way of living. During the famous fire in a cinema that closes the novel (but not the film), Komako even exclaims that her life would be easier if Yoko burned to death, but on witnessing her either fall or jump from the burning building she can do nothing other than run to her side.
Indeed, the novel’s climax finds Shimaura standing alone indifferent to the fate of Yoko, a young woman he had come to admire if only for her contrary qualities, admiring instead the beauty of the night sky. In Toyoda’s characterisation, Yoko is in one sense the conventionally good woman whose selfless devotion to the sickly Yukio so captivates Shimamura, but her goodness is nevertheless undercut by the degree of her animosity towards Komako even as the two women remain trapped in a complex web of frustrated affection and intense resentment, each perhaps knowing they neither can have the man they want and are condemned to an eternal unhappiness as the snow mounts all around them in this perpetually cold and depressing moribund resort town. Switching between studio matte paintings ironically mimicking Shimamura’s art and on-location footage of the deepening snows, Toyoda’s sense of near nihilistic melancholy evoking the atmosphere of Japan in the mid-1930s hints at grand tragedy but finds resolution only in stoicism as the heroine picks up her shamisen and trudges onward amid the quickening blizzard.