My yearly Halloween post is back! Last year, when I was in Tokyo, I reviewed Hideo Nakata’s mid-90s chiller, Don’t Look Up! (soon to be released in the US with a sparkly update thanks to Tidepoint Pictures). That very same week, I went to see Snow Woman at the Tokyo International Film Festival thanks to a friend. Here’s my review!
Release Date: 2017 (Seen at the Tokyo International Film Festival)
Running Time: 95 mins.
Director: Kiki Sugino
Writer: Kiki Sugino, Mitsuo Shigeta (Screenplay), Lafcadio Hearn (Original Story)
Starring: Kiki Sugino, Munetaka Aoki, Mayu Yamaguchi, Shiro Sano, Kumi Mizuno, Yoshiko Miyazaki, Takeshi Yamamoto,
Kiki Sugino is an adventurous talent. She is famous as an actor, a career she began when she was in university in 2005 and since then she has gone on to star in multiple films across Asia but during that time she has also produced and directed films of her own. Her first two features, Kyoto Elegy (2014) and Yokudo (2015) are thoroughly modern tales of couples in rocky relationships but Sugino shows her bravery and ingenuity by creating Snow Woman (Yuki-onna), her third directorial feature and a film which sees her continue to push herself by making a supernatural tale with an atmospheric twist.
People interested in Japanese culture may be aware of the supernatural being Yuki-onna (snow woman), a yokai who has transcended Japanese mythology to become an immensely popular figure in mainstream film, literature, anime, and manga. She has normally been portrayed as a mysterious and malevolent spirit who appears during snowstorms and is so stunningly beautiful she can lure unwary people to their death from exposure to the cold. Her story has most famously been retold by Lafcadio Hearn in his book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904) and Masaki Kobayashi’s omnibus horror film Kwaidan (1965). Sugino’s film follows on in the horror genre but she takes a different course, one less obvious and one more adventurous as she moves away from pure scares into something more contemplative.
The story remains mostly the same. It all begins with two hunters, the young Minokichi (Munetaka Aoki) and his mentor Mosaku who are beset by a fierce snowstorm while on a mountain. They take shelter in a hut as night falls because Mosaku is in bad shape due to the cold. The two soon sleep but some time later Minokichi is woken up by a presence and it is the beautiful Yuki-onna taking the life of Mosaku. It happens quietly and peacefully. She turns to the younger man and flashes him a deadly look and says, “I shall spare you because you are young, but if you tell another soul about this I shall take your life.” After that she drifts off into the shadows outside the hut and Minokichi is left alone and stunned.
This is a quiet and simple introduction to Yuki-onna, not a jump-scare in sight. Sugino’s choice to shoot in stark black and white and her effective camera placement shows Yuki-onna in dominant positions compared to Minokichi and portrays her as strong but not monstrous. She is more of a mystery linked to nature. The lack of colour emphasises the traditional look of her robes and skin which are stunningly white like the snow and she stands out as a luminescent beauty. The soundtrack, which is mostly ambient sounds like the winter wind howling, links directly to her and her ties to the natural world. The focus is clearly on her, her power and connection to nature. All of this sets the marker for the chilling yet gentle horror tale.
Despite being labelled horror, Snow Woman eschews any fascination with grisly frostbitten death and portrays Yuki-onna in a more sympathetic and intriguing light by exploring the conflicting cultural and emotional spaces that open up between the world of the supernatural from which Yuki-onna blows in from and that of humans, the world inhabited by her husband.
As we enter the second part of the film we see the forest in a glorious riot of colours that signals the onset of summer. Scarlet and green leaves dance in the wind and cover the ground. A year has passed and Minokichi is back on the mountain and he is accompanied by a man who is wearing a modernish suit, an indication of the time period which is somewhere after the 1950s. That man is Ogata (Takeshi Yamamoto), the nephew of Mosaku. He has journeyed from the city to the forest where they are performing a memorial service at the hut. On his way back home Minokichi travels down a peaceful path pondering life when he meets a beautiful young woman named Yuki (Kiki Sugino) sat alone in a kimono and with no belongings. She states that she is heading for a river crossing and Minokichi offers to walk her to it. It is clear that an unspoken attraction blossoms between the two and they soon marry she bears him a daughter, Ume (Mayu Yamaguchi) and the three live in Minokichi’s home with his mother.
The audience will know that Minokichi has married the very person who took Monsaku’s life and are waiting for the moment in the film when he realises or admits to himself what he has done and when Yuki will reveal her true nature, something teased by the director.
Throughout this middle-section Sugino’s script and direction continues to be steady as she allows fourteen years pass in the story and spends considerable time building up the dichotomy between the natural and artificial world. She lets us see the family’s life together in their forest home and contrasts it with the city where Minokichi takes a job in a factory and Ume attends school where she grows into a beautiful and talented young lady. The city is a competitive male-dominated space where drudgery and suspicion of outsiders is prevalent while the resplendent nature of the forest, truly supportive of those who inhabit it, is shown through four Japanese seasons and there is some light exploration of the mysteries of the natural world, a place where foxes and boars and other creatures with supernatural significance are heard or talked about and women perform beautiful mysterious ancient ceremonies. Meanwhile, the peaceful lives of Yuki-onna and Minokichi are further mirrored by Ogata and his family in the city which is beset by sickness and worry.
These contrasting views mix together with the mystery of Yuki-onna. Her haunting presence begins to hang heavily over the family, especially as people begin to die in the forest and this is something people surrounding Minokichi and Ume comment on like a Greek chorus whenever anything bad happens. Unease builds but doesn’t overwhelm the atmosphere, even as we see Yuki spend time outside on long walks and has surreal dreams of a lights in twinkling above a river, relaying some message to her. Meanwhile Ume has strange dreams of her own and learns of her mother’s and her own mysterious nature. We know she has power but the full extent is kept off-screen, as if hidden behind a veil along with the rest of the supernatural world. There are no terrifying moments, just the supernatural impinging upon the world of man. Magic is present but waiting for the right person to open the door. Minokichi could be that person because Yuki-onna has chosen to love him but the audience will have to see whether he wastes his chance or not and as the doubts linger in his mind, the really terrifying thing is whether he will ruin his chance of love. Indeed, instead of horror this is a love story.
With no fast editing, loud bangs, or jump-scares, Sugino has dragged the legendary Snow Woman from the scarier realms of J-horror and into a more quiet and contemplative realm that favours gentleness and coolness. It’s a unique take on a familiar character and those patience enough to wait out the snow storm will glimpse what lies in a more fantastical realm where love is as important as superstition.