ONIBABA (1964) precedes the Japanese classic "Kwaidan". This film is shot in its entirety in black and white, the film is Kaneto Shindo's masterpiece. Based on Buddhist folklore about morality, love and the manifestation of more refined emotions. The film is excellently executed, words, gestures and actions are conveyed with such emotional content that the film may just prove compelling even if it was made as a silent film.
A 45 year old woman (Nobuko Otawa) and a daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) struggle to survive when a war breaks out between feuding clans. Hungry, penniless and desperate, they resort to wanton acts of murder, they prey on lost or wounded samurai, killing them and taking their armor, valuable swords and sells them to a war profiteer (Taiji Tonoyama). The opening act is a grisly depiction of the two women slaughtering two unsuspecting samurai, not exactly a subtle way to begin a tale based on fable. Their lives become intertwined with Hachi (Kei Sato), a neighbor who returns from the field of battle with the news that their husband/son had been killed in combat. Left without a spouse, the daughter-in-law becomes attracted to Hachi, and he with her. What happens next is a frightful, sensual wind of lust, sex, envy, greed and murder…the kind that may catapult the trio into a downward spiral into hell.
"Onibaba" means "Demon Woman", the film is a simple, uncompromising dramatization on how low humanity can sink into to survive. The tale is about escalating intense emotions and passionate interactions(?). The film is excellently structured, the film plays like a morality drama but never once loses its frightening aspect. The film is a tale of lust, jealousy and anger. The main focus of the film is the older woman (Nobuko Otawa) who sees Hachi as a deserter, lazy and may be the cause of her son's death; this man may also ruin the arrangement she has with her daughter-in-law. Her repulsion of Hachi soon becomes hatred as she realizes that Hachi may become the cause of her becoming alone and left to fend for herself. The irony is; the older woman also longs for the touch of a man and the very sight of them embracing ignites a fire of envy, desire and rage that may consume the entire household. There are subtle symbols and metaphors to be had with the film; the blades of grass blowing with a movement to mimic the ocean represents passion and the demonic mask may well be a metaphor to something else. It all depends on how you interpret it.
Narratives aside, the film is a successful combination creepy atmosphere and simple camera work. There are moments that the camera stays still, that it feels almost voyeuristic that time had stopped is a haunting touch. The excellent cinematography gives life to the film's proceedings as well as to its characters. There is a haunting and ghostly, speechless gestures that add to the film's atmosphere. Shindo's direction is almost flawless in expressing the terror that is beginning to take hold of the trio's lives. Shadows are used effectively to convey the schemes and murderous plots that add to the film's moody and atmospheric feeling. If atmosphere is the main strength of a horror film, then this film would be the cream of the crop. The black and white approach actually added to the film's strength (I'm not sure if this was intentional), the bleakness and darkness in the lives of the protagonists are further expressed by the colorless proceedings.
The film is also uninhibited with its portrayal of sexual relations. For a film made in 1964, there are quite a number of long nude scenes by Otawa and Yohimura. Otawa (she became Shindo's wife) is a powerful presence with her gestures and facial mannerisms that exudes lust and rage. Yoshimura is a woman awakened by sexuality and lust, but before that she had that "shocked" characteristic that she exuded instinct. Kei Sato seemed very bestial in his portrayal of Hachi and Tonoyama makes a convincing presence as the sleazy profiteer. Curiously the sex scenes don't feel very titillating, they are erotically charged and very graphic, but it just didn't feel sleazy as one may expect.
The film's main premise may also be touched upon by elements of karma and error in judgment. The mask itself may represent something much more than a cursed object, and may well be a representation of a human being's capacity to hide behind an invisible mask when in the action of doing bad things--hiding one's guilt and manipulating how we want to be seen as. The well itself represents the descent into madness, while the darkness and the bodies themselves may represent the things that may eat away at one's soul--consider the depths of one's conscience. Tossing the bodies into the depths of the well also represents the depths of the hidden unlikable things that one may keep buried inside.
"Onibaba" is a unique experience. While it may lack the raw intensity of modern Japanese horror films, and may not be as visually horrific as modern horror films; it is still refreshing to know that a relic from the past can still endure as one of the best Japanese horror films with its defining moments of the aspects of lust and hatred, humanity‘s raw primal instincts.
Highly Recommended! [4 ½ stars]
Criterion sports an impressive enhanced widescreen transfer with a clear mono track. Subtitles are excellent. The extras contain interviews, making of features, galleries and a booklet about the the parable that inspired the film.
What did you think of this review?
Onibaba (鬼婆?, literally Demon Woman) (1964) is a Japanese horror film based on a Buddhist parable. Directed by Kaneto Shindō, the film is set in rural Japan in the fourteenth century and features Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura as a woman and her daughter-in-law who attack and kill passing samurai, strip them of their valuable armor and possessions, and dispose of the bodies in a deep pit.
During the Nanboku-chō period, a woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in a small hut in a susuki grass swamp. They make a living by killing samurai, disposing of their bodies in a deep pit and selling their armor and weapons. A neighbor named Hachi (Kei Sato) who went to war with the woman's son/daughter-in-law's husband returns and reports that he was killed in combat. Hachi starts to help the two women to kill passersby and take their possessions. Hachi begins blatantly ...