The lingering inequalities of the feudal society are manifested in a snake woman’s thwarted desire for love in Morihei Magatani’s Shintoho horror Lust of the White Serpent (蛇精の淫, Jasei no In). Not quite as salacious as its title may imply, Magatani’s film takes a sympathetic view of the classic snake lady painting her as a tragic heroine betrayed by the codes of the mortal world with its persistent classism and misogyny while offering the conflicted hero caught between the old and the new only a compromised escape in spirituality.
In what the opening voiceover describes as a local legend that has been passed on “since ancient days” though seemingly taking place in the relatively recent past, village boy Minokichi (Hiroshi Asami) hears a woman’s screams while walking along a mountain path and investigates to find her writhing around in the long grass. Having been attacked by a snake, the woman, Kinu (Kinuko Obata), seems confused though Minokichi recognises her as the daughter of the village headman and offers to carry her home. Unfortunately Kinu’s retinue immediately jump to the conclusion that filthy peasant boy Minokichi must have abducted her, roundly beating him for having dared to lay his hands on such a fine lady. “Even if you try to interact with them, they won’t treat you as an equal. This our fate” his mother reminds him cautioning him against any further attempts at interclass friendship.
The problem is that the half-crazed Kinu has apparently imprinted on Minokichi and insists that she will marry only him or else die. This is unwelcome news for her father who had been considering marrying her off to the son of a local businessman who has learning difficulties on the promise of a seat on the prefectural council. As for Minokichi, he is technically betrothed to childhood friend Kiyo (Yumiko Matsubara) but is growing resentful having fallen for Kinu but knowing that their romance is impossible because of the barrier of social class. In a surprising move, Kinu’s father chooses his daughter’s happiness over both the current social order and his own financial gain in formally offering Kinu to Minokichi who is then conflicted, at first reassuring Kiyo that he cannot accept only for her to tell him that he must on hearing the rather naive conviction of the local policeman that this taboo-breaking interclass union will liberate the villagers from their subjugation by the townspeople and they’ll never be looked down again.
As it turns out, Kinu has been possessed by the spirit of a snake woman, Sakurako, who fell in love with Minokichi after he saved her when she became trapped on a rock. The pair had had a brief affair a year earlier which Minokichi’s mother had put a stop to fearful that Minokichi was falling victim to a curse and that Sakurako meant to drain him of his energy and move on. “My background doesn’t matter, does it?” Sakurako had ironically asked having explained to Minokichi that she was just “a poor girl with no one to turn to” echoing the forbidden quality of Minokichi’s romance with Kinu. Yet their relationship is also transgressive in spanning two worlds. “Intimacy with an animal is non-Buddhistic behaviour” Minokichi is later scolded by an intense priest though still finding himself drawn to Sakurako despite the entreaties of his mother and Kiyo trying to drag him back to the village and his “proper” place in the contemporary social order.
As for Kinu little thought is given to this reckless usurpation of her body, Sakurako seemingly having chosen her to appeal to Minokichi’s desire for social advancement. Once everyone knows she is possessed by a snake spirit things get even stranger with some of the men in the village believing that the only way to tell is to sleep with her. Having tried a shinto shamaness who confirmed a diagnosis of possession by a white snake, Kinu’s father tries a Western doctor branded a “horny weirdo” by the villagers. Despite everyone knowing this and that he is clearly drunk, the doctor is left alone in a room with Kinu and proceeds to rape her while the servant Sakuzo who had beaten Minokichi merely for touching his mistress watches silently from outside. When Sakurako strangles the doctor, winding her snake body around his chest, it is read as an expression of the snake’s curse, everyone instantly understanding what the doctor had done but merely covering up the crime while later petitioning Kinu’s father to have her sent away to save them from the havoc she is wreaking with storms, droughts, and floods in protest at her unhappy fate.
Minokichi who was supposed to unite two worlds and dissolve barriers finds himself in a liminal state no longer a member of either, Kiyo’s father refusing to welcome him back into the village while having separated from Kinu on realising she is a snake woman denies him a place in the town. While he tells himself that he should know his place, reintegrate himself into the village and accept his proper social role by settling down and marrying Kiyo as he was supposed to do he cannot let go of his desire for Sakurako/Kinu and in the end cannot resist following her even if or perhaps precisely because it may lead to his death. When the “curse” is broken he is led away once again only this time by the priest as a new devotee of Buddhism reinforcing a spiritual message but ironically also implying that Minokichi’s fault was in trying to help others, firstly the snake and secondly Kinu, when he should like his mother advised have minded his own business and refrained from interacting with those outside of his immediate community be they beautiful noblewomen or alluring snake spirits. Though light on effects, Magatani ups the atmosphere with copious fog while employing a series of dissolves for the snake women’s transformations and some superimposition for their wrathful curses. The message may be know your place or you’ll end up nowhere, but the film nevertheless has unexpected sympathy for the lonely Sakurako beaten into submission by a cruel and misogynistic society.
Original trailer (no subtitles)