Wild Geese (雁, AKA The Mistress, Shiro Toyoda, 1953)

(C) Daiei, 1953In the extreme turbulence of the immediate post-war period, it’s not surprising that Japan looked back to the last time it was confronted with such confusion and upheaval for clues as to how to move forward from its current state of shocked inertia. The heroine of Shiro Toyoda’s adaptation of the Ogai Mori novel, Wild Geese (雁, Gan, AKA The Mistress), finds herself at a similar crossroads to the women of the 1950s, caught between tradition and modernity as they embrace the new freedoms but remain constrained by a conservative society. Toyoda, well known for his adaptations of great literature, makes a few key changes to Mori’s novel in effect placing a Showa era heroine in a recognisably “Meiji” world.

The Japan of the 1880s is one of extreme contrast and rapidly unfolding modernity. Having finally opened its doors to the outside world, the nation is in a big hurry to “catch up” to those it sees as its equals on the world stage. Consequently, Western thoughts and values are flooding into the country, bringing both good and ill. Arranged marriages are still common and Otama (Hideko Takamine) has been married once but the marriage has failed – she was deceived, the man she married already had a wife and child. Still, having lived with a man as his wife, Otama is considered “damaged” goods and will find it difficult to make a good match in the future (especially given the whiff of scandal from being involved in an illegitimate marriage with a bigamist).

When a matchmaker (Choko Iida) arrives with a potential husband it proves hard to turn down but the matchmaker is not quite on the level. Suezo (Eijiro Tono), she says, is a recently widowed man with a young child who is in need of a new wife but cannot marry again immediately for propriety’s sake. Otama will be his mistress and then in due course his wife. However, the matchmaker is an unscrupulous woman who has spun Otama a yarn in the hope of getting her debt written off by getting the shady loanshark she owes money to a pretty young woman to have some fun with.

The position Otama finds herself in is one of impossibility. A woman cannot survive alone in the Meiji era and its lingering concessions to feudalism. For a woman as poor and lowly as Otama whose marriage prospects are slim there are few options available. Otama’s neighbour (Kuniko Miyake) has managed to carve out a life for herself as a single woman through teaching sewing classes but such opportunities are few and far between, as Otama is warned when she considers following her example. The “arrangement” with Suezo may not seem too bad on the surface – he looks after her and her father, has set her up in a house, and treats her well even if his behaviour leans toward the possessive. Despite confessing to her father that she feels trapped and miserable, humiliated on learning she has been ostracised as the mistress of a married loanshark, Otama finds little sympathy as her father declares himself “very happy” and councils her against leaving because he has no desire to return to a life of poverty, remaining selfishly indifferent to his daughter’s suffering.

Resigned to her fate, Otama does her best to adapt to her new life but remains as trapped within Suezo’s house as the caged bird he presents her with “for company”. Jealous and fearing that his wife will find out about the affair, Suezo’s preference is for Otama to stay indoors waiting for him to call. His visits are routine and perfunctory. Handing the maid a few coins to go to the public bath, Suezo signals his intentions in the least romantic of ways, pausing only to lock the garden gate.

Catching sight of an earnest student who passes by everyday at 4, Otama begins to dream of something better. The student, Okada (Hiroshi Akutagawa), is a source of fascination for all the young women in the neighbourhood but he too is instantly captivated when he glimpses the beautiful Otama trapped behind the bar-like slats of Suzeo’s love nest. Adding a touch of biblical intrigue, it is a snake which eventually leads to their meeting but no matter how deep the connection this is a love destined to fail – Otama is the kept woman of a loanshark, and Okada is a medical student with international ambitions. They inhabit different worlds and, as his friend (Jukichi Uno) puts it, this is still the Meiji era, the times will not allow it.

Nevertheless, even if her brief infatuation seems doomed, the mere act of wanting something else provokes a shift in Otama’s way of thinking. This act of fierce individualism which prompts her to defy the dominant male forces in her life whose selfish choices have caused her nothing but misery would normally be severely punished in the name of preserving social harmony but Otama’s epiphany is different. The opening title card reminded us that this was a time wild geese still flew in the skies above Tokyo. It seems to imply that birds no longer fly here, that there is no true freedom or possibility for flight in the modern age of Showa, but Otama is a woman trapped in the cage of Meiji suddenly realising that the doors have been open all along. Her choices amount to a humiliating yet materially comfortable life of subjugation, or the path of individualistic freedom in embracing her true desires. Her dream of true love rescue may have been shattered, but Otama’s heart, at least, is finally free from the twin cages of social and patriarchal oppression.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (蛇娘と白髪魔, Noriaki Yuasa, 1968)

snake girl and the white haired witchLittle Sayuri has had it pretty tough up to now growing up in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns, but her long lost father has finally managed to track her down and she’s going to able to live with her birth family at last! However, on the car ride to her new home her father explains a few things to her to the effect that her mother was involved in some kind of accident and isn’t quite right in the head. Things get weirder when they arrive at the house only to be greated by the guys from the morgue who’ve just arrived to take charge of a maid who’s apparently dropped dead!

If that weren’t enough her “mother” calls her by the wrong name and then dad gets a sudden telegram about needing to go to Africa for “several weeks” to study a new kind of snake! On her tour of the house, Sayuri finds a room full of snakes, reptiles and insects (and also for some reason a large vat of acid?!) as well as a room with a buddhist altar where the food seems to disappear just as if Buddha himself were really eating it. Eventually, Sayuri is introduced to her secret sister, Tamami, who has slight facial disfigurement and a wicked disposition which has seen her locked away from view for quite some time…..

Based on the manga by Kazuo Umezu, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (蛇娘と白髪魔, Hebi Musume to Hakuhatsuma) is, apparently, aimed at a younger audience which explains its child’s eye view of events but the film makes no concessions to the supposed softness of little minds. With a host of surreal imagery including dream sequences full of creepy, hypnotic spirals, and moments of shocking violence such as a large frog being suddenly ripped in half right in front of Sayuri’s eyes the film certainly doesn’t stint on blood, horror and general freakiness.

Sayuri herself seems largely unperturbed by these strange goings on outside of her nightmarish serpentine visions. She seems to have been well cared for at the orphanage and is happy to have found her family rather than just to be escaping the institution. On getting “home” she does her best to fit in right away, acting politely and trying to bond with her mother even in her confused state. She even tries to get on well with her mysterious sister despite the ominous warning to keep her very existence a secret from her father. Tamami, however, is a nightmare child with homicidal tendencies who isn’t interested in playing happy families with the girl who’s come to usurp her place in the household.

There’s a little more to the set up than just snake based horror (the clue being the Silver-Haired Witch of the title) but the secondary message seems to be one of remembering that the true beauty of a person lies not in their external appearance but in the goodness of their soul. The previously deformed Tamami is later said to be looking sweeter after having “redeemed” herself and Sayuri pledges to honour Tamami’s sisterly sacrifice by always remembering to hold fast and true to the beautiful things in her own soul without being swayed by worldly charms.

Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is more of a psychological horror tale than some of the effects laden efforts of the period. However, there are a fair few practical effects on show most notably during the dream sequences – one of which sees Sayuri actually fighting a giant snake with a sword, as well as the creepy spirals and the appearance of weird vampire-like snake women, dancing oni masks and the Silver-Haired Witch herself.

A children’s film that no one in their right mind would actually show to a child, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is a freakishly psychological horror show seen through the eyes of a little girl. Part dreamscape and part terrifying reality, the film mixes the real and the imagined with a fiendish intensity and it just goes to show that sometimes you really do need to pay attention to the strange fancies of intrepid young ladies.


This trailer doesn’t have any subtitles but it is actually quite scary…..