(1964) Written and directed by Kaneto Shindô; Starring: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satô; Available on DVD
Rating: *** ½
“The smallness of human existence within the world is explored. Though we are small, we have to live, so how we survive when faced with difficulty is the basis of this story about two women.” – Kaneto Shindô (excerpt from 2003 interview)
Japanese horror films, compared to their western counterparts, are often slower burning, more interested in allowing the macabre story to gradually unfold, rather than resorting to quick jump scares or elaborate special effects. Some of the more effective examples (Kuroneko, Kwaidan, etc…) have relied on tales from ancient legends, where history, culture and the darker side of human nature intersect. Onibaba, which is best described as a drama with horrific elements, follows in this tradition. The film takes its name from a legendary yokai that started out as a normal human, but became a demon after suffering an unbearable tragedy (source: Yokai Attack! by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt).
Writer/director Kaneto Shindô set his film during Japan’s Sengoku (or “Warring States”) period, when skirmishes between two houses have left the country devastated. A middle-aged peasant woman known only as “Kichi’s Mother” (Nobuko Otowa), and her daughter in law, “Kichi’s Wife” (Jitsuko Yoshimura), are the focal point of the story. Food is scarce, and crops fail to thrive. The two women eke out a meager existence, killing passing samurai and taking their possessions. In turn, they exchange the samurai armor and swords for bags of millet. Meanwhile the daughter in law anxiously awaits the return of her husband, who left their village to help fight in the pointless war.
Kichi’s friend Hachi (Kei Satô) returns home, only to report that his comrade has been killed in battle. Judging by Hachi’s apparent lack of remorse, we’re never sure if he’s telling the truth about Kichi’s death, or if he was an accessory to the murder. But it doesn’t take long before his intentions for Kichi’s wife become clear. Her initial disgust turns to lust, as his advances intensify. There’s a raw, primal energy to their sexuality, which is presented in a frank manner, but never seems gratuitous or exploitative. In the bleak scenario they face, sex is a natural response to the monotony of daily survival. On the other hand, Kichi’s mother is far more reluctant to accept this interloper, and views him as a threat to their livelihood. As the rift grows between mother and daughter-in law, the elder woman plots to get Hachi out of the picture permanently. She plants the seeds of demonic retribution for her daughter in law’s perceived impropriety, appropriating a fearsome mask from a murdered samurai. By virtue of impersonating a demon, the mask becomes her true face.
At its heart, Onibaba is about the ongoing human struggle for life amidst a harsh, unforgiving environment. The unflinching depiction of the drudgery and monotony of the characters’ daily lives is the film’s strength and weakness. Shindô’s tale eschews most of the supernatural elements, in favor of depicting more earthly horrors. The expansive field of reeds (susuki) figures prominently throughout the film, enveloping the region like a death shroud, and serving as the characters’ prison. The field’s movement in the wind also signifies the inexorable ebb and flow of things. The floor of a pit is strewn with the bones of past victims, representing a boundary between the living and dead; but life above the pit is just as grim, and just as ephemeral.
Onibaba is exceptionally well made, featuring gorgeous black and white cinematography and believable performances. Because of the film’s glacial pace, however, a second watch doesn’t make it any easier to sit through. I admire Onibaba for its artistry, but the film overstays its welcome, long before the disturbing climax. Misgivings aside, it’s impossible to overlook the film’s chilling, all-too-real horror, based on peasant life under the constraints of feudal Japan. Its true power resides in the indelible imagery that sticks with you, long after you’ve watched the film.