The traditional Halloween movie review is back and there’s a continuation from last year as we look at another film incarnation of the legendary Yuki Onna, only this time it’s from an older interpretation of the film.
怪談雪女郎 「Kaidan yukijorô」
Running Time: 79 mins.
Release Date: April 20th, 1968
Director: Tokuzo Tanaka
Writer: Fuji Yahiro (Screenplay), Lafcadio Hearn (Novel)
Starring: Shiho Fujimura, Akira Ishihama, Machiko Hasegawa, Tatsuo Hanabu, Sen Hara, Yoshiro Kitahara,
Yuki Onna has been a famous legend around Japan for centuries and has become a part of Japanese popular culture thanks to seminal works such as Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of folk-tales, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904), a book which went on to inspire Masaki Kobayashi’s omnibus horror film Kwaidan (1965). Yuki Onna has had many film incarnations, some of which focus on her monstrousness while others look at her humanity and relation to nature like Kiki Sugino’s 2016 film of the same name. Here we get the mysterious and somewhat scary take as well as a rumination on the supernatural world and its relation on the world of people.
“Long ago, on the border between Mino and Hida, where there is much snow, there circulated among the people who lived there, the legend of Yuki Onna…”
The film opens with this narration during a snow storm. We are treated to an extreme close-up of Yuki Onna’s golden eyes before a long shot of the shape of a person moving through the blizzard with howling wind as our soundtrack. From our distance it’s a hazy shape but we can just about see a white kimono and long black hair blending in with the flurries of snow that dazzle the camera. Yuki Onna is reputed to be the spirit of snow turned into a terrible witch and it can take possession of men and take their vitality away from them. Common villagers believe this legend and two common villagers will find she is more than a legend one night.
The elderly carpenter Shigetomo and his apprentice Yosaku are in a forest scouting out the finest tree on the land of the local bailiff because they have been commissioned by the local Buddhist temple to craft a statue of the deity Kannon, a bodhisattva who is associated with compassion and is is also known as the “Goddess of Mercy”. The two have had to trudge through snowy mountains and fields to get there. When they get caught in a brutal snow storm on their way back home, just as night descends and the temperatures drop even further, they spot a hut where they can take shelter. This is where Yuki Onna strikes.
The two men are asleep when the door to the hut creaks open with what sounds like a woman’s exhaling breath. The sound of the storm floods in as Yuki Onna floats in like a serene spirit. The interior suddenly becomes icy with her entrance. The camera pans around as it zeroes in on Yosaku who has awakened and watches as Yuki Onna floats to his master and breathes over him, covering the man’s body in frost. The camera pans over the inert body and the view drifts up to Yuki Onna and her yellow eyes as she looks across the room at Yosaku. It seems that he will be next as the spirit spies him staring at her but after approaching Yosaku, Yuki Onna says,
“You… so young and so beautiful, I ahve decided that I will not kill you. But in return, you mustn’t tell anyone about what you saw today. Even your most intimate people…”
Having warned the young man that speaking out will result in death, she departs into the night leaving him to slip into unconsciousness.
A few days later, Yosaku has recovered from the experience but is still haunted. Despite this he takes over from his dead master and is expected to work on the commission to craft a statue of Kannon. It is around this time that he meets a mysterious and beautiful woman named Yuki as she shelters from intense rains under the eaves of the house/workshop he shares with his master’s widow. The young man and woman fall in love and marry but her beauty is enough to capture the attention of the bailiff, a cruel bully, who begins to harass Yosaku to steal Yuki away from him just as his personal and professional life begin to bloom…
The film then slips into a pattern of establishing the feudal setting of the world Yosaku and Yuki inhabit and the interference of the bailiff. It shows the two attending festivals dedicated to nature, the influence of the Buddhist temples on people, and the power structures that allow people such as the bailiff and his samurai to roam about the place and bully others including beating up the elderly and children. This bunch of samurai abuse their positions because they have that power and they pay lip service to social mores and religious precepts that keep those less powerful in check. The wanton acts of cruelty are contrasted with the more restrained nature of Yuki Onna who blends in perfectly with the human world and lends succour in the form of her magic power to those in need of it, even as it leaves her drained and vulnerable. Through helping others she learns how to be a more compassionate and merciful person and she also enjoys love and the milk of human kindness so while her essential nature still remains and she still freezes people, it’s only people who discover what she is rather than random souls caught in snow storms.
The world of humans and the supernatural link at so many points and not just death as acknowledged by festivals and traditions which allow all sorts of interactions to take place.
Japan, due to its agrarian past and Shintoism has a whole array of spirits that manifest themselves in nature and Yuki Onna is just one of them. Spirituality in Japan is open and flexible allowing Shintoism and Buddhism to co-exist and the film shows how they intersect through Yuki Onna’s emergence from nature, her presence in Yosaku’s life and the rustic village they inhabit and the conflict that emerges when humans try to exercise their power over her through unjust actions. Yosaku’s dedication to his craft and his Buddhist principals shadow the two characters happy lives and portends the ending which helps to define the story just as much as adding tension to the film. The horror parts soon arrive to chill the audience.
Tokuzo Tanaka’s direction favours slow build up. The whole middle section after Yuki Onna’s first manifestation is world building and hints at her magical powers while maintaining believable and relatable character growth as she goes from legendary monster in the first frame to a sympathetic character full of love. When threatened, her original nature comes to the fore and Tanaka makes her a scary presence.
As delightful and dutiful as she is as a wife, she has a fierceness that comes out at moments, usually initiated by a man transgressing social boundaries and threatening to reveal her supernatural side.
When she lets loose her supernatural fury the set changes as people slip between the human and supernatural world. Snow blows into scenes and the interiors of houses freeze over before turning into arctic wastelands. She is framed in close-ups, her ghostly face and her piercing golden gaze holding the attention of victims and audience members alike. The camera often zooms in on her face and the faces of her victims and it always begins and ends with the eyes, her piercing golden eyes attention-riveting. She moves with an unearthly poise and grace at a slow speed as her victims find themselves unable to flee. It’s a beautiful and scary spectacle.
For all of her fierceness however, Yosaku would not be able to finish the statue of Kannon had he not glimpsed true compassion and love from Yuki Onna. For while he could construct the body of the statue, seeing the love and mercy in his wife’s face after she has sacrificed so much for others and learned to be compassionate herself inspires him to new artistic heights and imbues the statue of Kannon with deeply felt meaning.
Even if you know how the legend ends, the finale is still very powerful because a lot of the prior scenes are used as evocative moments to emphasise Yuki Onna as a loving mother and wife and not just a creature bound to her nature and going about freezing people. She made the conscious choice to love and be loved. The film has a tragic element to it as our titular ghost and her human husband, having found true compassion and love with each other, find the supernatural world and the human one don’t coexist easily. Or maybe they do and men, weak-willed as we are, find some way to disrespect and ruin it. The film is beautiful, well shot, and offers plenty to think about as well as its heartfelt ending.
That’s it for this year’s review. It ballooned more than I thought it would since I wrote it at a time when I was turning in 900 words reviews. Thanks for reading it and HAPPY HALLOWEEN.