At first look, The Red Snake is a horror story which appeal resides primarily in Hino Hideshi’s graphic vision. Far from the classicism of Umezu Kazuo, lacking the meticoulous approach of Itô Junji, opposed to the esthetic preoccupations of Maruo Suehiro, Hino Hideshi delivers a raw vision deeply rooted in grotesque, bringing out a gallery of misshapen characters sharing the same bluging gaze on the world. In this case, the narrator of this story, a small kid prisonner of the family house he cannot escape, who witnesses the slow descent of his family into hell … a descent for which he might well be responsible, for having unvolontarily unleashed an age-old curse.
The story structure can seem rather simple — and it is indeed, if one tries and compare it with traditional horror tales. The conclusion, in particular, relies on what could be deemed a far too easy plot twist : the “it was but a dream” that allows the author to get away with any exaggerations or incoherencies without having to come up with an explanation. And though, this revelation certainly holds all the richness of this story that then takes on another dimension altogether. Not just horrific anymore, The Red Snake then becomes oniric, fantasmatic — and indeniably the metaphorical expression of the anxieties of a wakening sexuality.
From their origins, horror tales have often been associated with a sexual thematic, displaying the surnatural seduction of vampires, shamelessly putting planturous (and undressed) victims in the face of danger, unlashing slashers among teenagers where any carnal sin is a death sentence — the Eros-Thanatos duet in full play. The Red Snake resolutely subscribes to this legacy, bringing together the gruelest violence with an omnipresent sensuality. And using the family unit as its experimentation ground, Hino Hideshi sets aside his more grotesque visions of Hell (as seen in his Panorama of Hell and Hell’s Baby) to deliver a story pervaded by a deeply sick and visceral atmosphere.
While the family featured here is tipically Japanese in its structure (with the grandparents living under the same roof, or the strained relation betwen the grand-mother and her daughter-in-law), it is shown as seen through the eyes of the narrator.
Thus, men are menacing and monstruous, be it the father (who decapitates chickens, in a transposal of castration) or the tutelar figure of the grandfather, particularly dominating and frightening ; on the other hand, women are either desirable (the mother and the sister, who are in the right age bracket to be seen so) or repulsive (the grandmother, too old to procreate, but still obsessed with the eggs she covets with enthusiasm). One should note how the beauty of the former is magnified — especially in the close-ups of faces, which often end up featuring only the (closed) eyes and the mouth (agape) in an extatic transe.
Finally, the house in the middle of the trees that one cannot leave could represent the heavy atmosphere of the family, from which the young narrator would try and escape. Or, in another hypothesis that I find more satisfying, could be a representation of the mind of this narrator, including the living area (the concious) and the uncharted part (the unconscious), the impossibility to leave then expressing the teenage crisis — all this reinforcing the fantasmatic dimension of this story as well as that of the featured horrors.
As central element to this story, the red snake of the title can then be seen as the symbol of the accession to sexuality. Darting out of the mysterious “closed room”, it manages to bite the sister, letting out (from a wound that will not heal) blood flowing down her legs. Once thus deflowered, the games of the sister (which were not innocent already ) will take on another dimension, as her embraces with snakes could correspond to an erotic sublimation of masturbation — all this under the fascinated yet guilty gaze of a narrator that cannot control the pulsions that he feels.
In general, this narrative is full of elements that betray his confusion in the face of things that he perceives intuitively, but of which the precise meaning evades him : the ambiguous exclamations of the grandfather as the mother nurses his wart (“oh ! that great ! harder ! harder still !”), or later still with the mother’s “fecundation” and birth-giving that display his misconceptions of anatomical reality — of course.
The conclusion (with escalating levels of violence) happens on the other side of the mirror — a mirror that is crossed to be faced with oneself. What follows takes on the aspect of an initiation : the climbing of the pole, the crossing of the sea of blood, the confrontation with the others (miraculously brought back to their original appearing in death) … before ending up in front of the closed room which, after an ultimate confrontation with the red snake, will open a little more — without really revealing its secret.
Life then goes on, the story naturally looping back — bringing back (without change) the first two pages of this book, a short moment of respite and worry before the inevitable return of the storm of passions. Boys will be boys.
- And implicated the worms used by the father to feed his chickens — worms looking like penises (stressing with this resemblance the strangeness of this body part) that the sister eats in secret. Also note that those same worms are used by the (castrating) father to feed the grandmother (the repulsive woman figure, deprived of all sexual appeal).