The Snake Within: Adapting Kazuo Umezu’s Reptilia

Have you ever had terrifying dreams of a snakes flying at you and eyes watching you through a knothole? Have you ever felt the hands of the Silver-Haired Witch around your throat? Have you ever feared that your sister might, in fact, be a malicious snake girl?

Last month I wrote about Kazuo Umezu’s snake woman / hebi onna stories collected in Reptilia published by IDW Publishing in 2007. This month, I’m writing about, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968) a film adaptation of Umezu’s work. Snake Girl and The Silver-Haired Witch screenwriters Kimiyuki Hasegawa and Kazuo Koze used two stories from Reptilia: “Afraid of Mommy” and “Reptilia.” Some comics adaptations recreate a narrative or storyline. Some try to recreate a comic shot for shot, like Sin City (2005) or 300 (2006). But Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is an intriguing adaptation. It is more about capturing the feel of Umezu’s manga and using particular elements while creating a whole new story.  It reminds me of 1930s and 1940s film adaptations of literary works and plays that note they are “suggested by” their source material or even of Roger Corman’s Poe films, that are certainly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s–and sometimes H.P. Lovecraft’s–works, but certainly aren’t “faithful” adaptations in the sense of presenting that exact story on the screen.

It is remarkably emotionally intense, especially in a film for children. Yes, like Umezu’s manga, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is intended for children and it would probably have messed me up had I saw it when I was nine–at the same time that I would probably have loved how well it captured the terrors of childhood. It’s in a different, more intense vein than director Yuasa’s other children’s films—Gamera (1965); Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967); Gamera vs. Viras (1968); and, Gamera vs. Guiron (1969). Gamera is famously a friend to children, but he is most often friend to a little boy while the boy’s sister is left to hang around with, say, the local comic relief policeman instead of going on space adventures. In Snake Girl And The Silver-Haired Witch, not only does Yuasa move into horror and mystery, his protagonist is a little girl, though neither the snake girl nor the silver-haired witch are friends to her. As I noted last month, I have watched quite a few films with snake ladies, but this is the first one where I didn’t sympathize with the snake. In fact, I liked heroine Sayuri’s moxie and her rad pixie haircut. And this is the first snake lady movie I’ve watched that reminds me of Italian thrillers and specifically giallo films, the giallo with supernatural elements. Like so much giallo, Umezu and Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch give us: murder, dreams and surrealism, orphanages, secrets, nuns, dolls, eyes, hypno spirals, masks, witches, hospitals, head injuries, reptiles, spiders and malice.*

The film starts with the murder of a maid in a herpetological laboratory. A caped figure with a scaled hand takes a snake from a terrarium and throws it at the maid. The snake wraps around the poor woman’s neck. Is she strangled? Is she bitten? Does she have a heart attack from fright? We only know she’s dead. Then we cut directly to a Catholic orphanage. Sayuri’s father, Goro Nanjo (Yoshirō Kitahara) has come to take her home to her biological family. The nun in charge of the orphanage, Sister Yamakawa (Kuniko Miyake) assures Sayuri (Yachie Matsui) that this is indeed her father. Matsui has a natural charm and I’m sad that she didn’t go on to work more in film. As far as I can tell, she starred in only one other film, Aitsu to Watashi (1967). But she did go on to become a champion bowler and that is, frankly, amazing. There are actors all over the place, but so few bowling champions in the world. Sayuri is nine, old enough to take care of herself, but still a kid. Her best friend is her older “brother” at the orphanage, Tatsuya (Sei Hiraizumi). Tatsuya is straight up what anyone could want in an older brother: brave, smart, loyal, listens to and believes Sayuri. And at somewhere between eighteen and twenty-five, Tatsuya is old enough for adults to take seriously.

Sayuri displaying moxie in repelling out of her room.

Sayuri is ecstatic to have a family. Her parents seem swell, though her father has a herpetolotical (and scorpion and dinosaur skull) laboratory in the basement and her mother (Yuko Hamada) is recovering from a car accident that has left her detached and confused. The Nanjo family just has time for a reunion dinner before Dr. Nanjo must skedaddle to Africa on a research mission concerning a rare snake. He plans to be gone for three weeks and in that time we discover what I assume are all the Nanjo family secrets**. Because Sayuri’s mother’s mental health is delicate, Shige (Sachiko Meguro), the Nanjo’s surviving servant runs interference between Sayuri and her mother. Sayuri has strange, phantasmagoric dreams in her new home. Dreams with hypnospiral backgrounds and staring eyes. Dreams where her doll comes alive. Her first night in her new home, we see an eye staring down at Sayuri through a hole in the ceiling. Later a snake drops onto Sayuri in her bed. Sayuri calls for her mother, but awakens Shige, who, seeing no snake, decides Sayuri is lying. Thus, begins the gaslighting of Sayuri. But Sayuri is so filled with moxie and has had many years of healthy support from Sister Yamakawa and Tatsuya that she trusts her instincts and decides to watch what she tells Shige and her mother.

Praying with her mother one day, Sayuri sees eyes looking back at her from behind the altar. And she tells her mother of seeing a girl in her room. Her mother admits that Sayuri has an older sister, Tamami (Mayumi Takahashi), who lives in the attic and peers at them through the walls and ceiling. Tamami is ill and difficult, according to her mother, and so does not go to school. Tamami says she was lurking in Sayuri’s bedroom because she wanted to meet her sister. Thinking a life spent peeking through holes is no way to live, Sayuri agrees to share the bedroom and bed with Tamami. Their mother is overjoyed that her daughters want to be friends. She makes them promise not to tell Dr. Nanjo, who apparently is the only one who does not know Tamami is living in the attic and creeping around the house’s crawlspaces dropping snakes on people. As they shake hands, Sayuri notices how cold her older sister’s hand is. And Tamami thinks, “What a kind grip. Tasty indeed.”

After another nightmare, Sayuri awakens the next morning to find Tamami staring at pictures of frogs in her biology textbook. Tamami can’t go to school, but Tamami sure likes to look at pictures of frogs. Sayuri also discovers that Tamami had torn the head off Sayuri’s doll, who had appeared as a protective figure in her dream. Did I mention that the dream sequences are amazing?

Sayuri continues to go to school, but at home Tamami only becomes more hostile and malicious. In a terrifying display, Tamami locks Sayuri in their father’s laboratory and dissolves a living snake in a tank of acidic venom right in front of her. Sayuri becomes more and more convinced her sister is a snake girl, regardless of Shige’s assertions that she is a liar. She sees scales on Tamami’s back and finds one in their room.

Her biology teacher determines that it is a snake scale. When she brings home a frog from class, Tamami is fascinated by it. That night, Tamami tricks Sayuri into thinking she has slipped out of the house to hunt for frogs. When Shige and their mother go out to find Tamami, Sayuri is again locked in with Tamami. In a trick straight out of “Scared of Mama,” Tamami has fooled everyone into leaving her alone with Sayuri. She tears a bullfrog in half and throws it at Sayuri. She tells Sayuri that she is a snake. Leading to another amazing dream sequence. Sayuri awakens on the floor in time to hear Tamami tell her mother and Shige that Sayuri is lying about her and saying she’s a snake. This is enough to get Sayuri banished to the attic, which is filled with masks from all over the world lit in the creepiest way possible. Tamami is in charge now, and locks the door on Sayuri, as the door had been locked on her. Now Sayuri watches Tamami in her old room through the hole in the attack floor.

Umezu’s comics feature a lot of eyes peering into intimate spaces.

Sayuri is still plagued by eerie dreams, but now they have a new element—a silver-haired Witch who watches her through the attic skylight and then tries to strangle her. When she wakes up, she sees the silver-haired witch and climbs out her window making her way down several stories to the street. Because Sayuri’s got moxie. Sayuri catches a cab and goes to the orphanage where she tells Tatsuya and Sister Yamakawa all about it. The nun has some news of her own about Tamami. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by mentioning the word, “sanatorium.” Sister Yamakawa begins to write a letter to Sayuri’s father clearing up the whole matter, but in media letter, the witch stabs her.

Sister Yamakawa, still clutching her pen.

Meanwhile, Sayuri and Tatsuya hurry to the Nanjo house on Tatsuya’s rad scooter. They’ve received a call summoning Sayuri home; Mrs. Nanjo has had another accident. But they run afoul of the silver-haired witch. Will they escape? Will Mr. Nanjo ever come home? The story continues with more mystery, danger and derring-do. And the ending is remarkably intense. Again, especially intense for a children’s movie, though perhaps not as much for manga and young adult fiction in general.

Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch has an interesting serial feel that doesn’t come from Umezu’s source material, beyond, perhaps, his own pacing in the two short stories used. The film has a little bit of a drawing room mystery feel to it—or maybe more an old time serial feel in its non-stop pacing, its perils and in its plot. There is even cliff-hanging—or, really, building hanging—and a thrilling conclusion. And there are the villains with elaborate schemes, but set in every day life. And there are the snake girl and the witch who might or might not be supernatural. There was no silver-haired witch in the stories collected in Reptilia, but Umezu’s snake woman stories are supernatural and the snake monster is real. In Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch, it is much less clear until the end. There’s what we think we see, what we suspect and what’s really happening once everything is explained. It could be that Sayuri is only dreaming; that Tamami really is a snake; or that something else is going on. But like Umezu’s snake women, Tamami and the witch are relentlessly malicious people trying to get rid of a meddling kid.

In Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch, screenwriters Hasegawa and Koze certainly captured the feeling of the manga, but came up with something new using elements from the two short stories and adding the witch. There are many elements from “Scared of Mama” and “Reptilia” in the film: frogs, frog-eating, snake scales, eyes peering through holes, attempted gaslighting, nightmares, head injuries, uncertainty about parents, and a sequence in which a child locks herself in the house after sending her caretakers to go find the snake, who has pretended to leave to go eat frogs, but has hidden at home to torment the girl. In fact, Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch is like another story in the series.

As in so much Japanese horror, what happens is almost always an unfortunate confluence of beings and events. The victim gets someone or something’s attention. In Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch, there was a mistake nine years ago and now Sayuri and Tamami are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The “paranormal illness” Tamami suffers is a little different than that of the snake woman in “Afraid of Mommy.” Snake Girl does not become a snake because she believes one. At least not to the extant of growing a tail. As Tatsuya tells Tamami, when pleading for his and Sayuri’s life, Tamami is ugly not because of her scales, but because she has grown ugly inside. And as in so much Japanese horror, whether or not Tamami was born a snake girl, she has become demonic through her bitterness, resentment, jealousy and envy. Ugly emotions, unchecked, can turn anyone into a demon.

*It’s also easy to watch as an adaptation of Jane Eyre with a snake girl in the attic instead of Bertha Antoinette Mason, but that’s a whole ‘nother article. A snake lady would solve all over Jane Eyre‘s problems. Matt Lynch also notes how much like a giallo the movie seems at Letterboxd.

**Of course, who knows what else lurked in the Nanjo home. I mean, Dr. Nanjo has a dinosaur skull. Time travel? Cloning? Dino ladies?


When shaking hands, Carol Borden often remarks how soft and delicious her new acquaintance’s hand seems.

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