It's been well over a decade since I last saw Onibaba (1964, directed by Kaneto Shindô). Once upon a time, I would have named it my favorite Japanese film. Time and (I hope) wisdom has put the kibosh on that. I mean, the very notion of having a favorite anything seems ridiculous to me anymore, particularly a favorite from a national cinema as broad and as deep as Japan's. Even so, Onibaba continues to haunt me. The details of its plot may have receded in my memory a bit, but the images? The tall grass swaying menacingly in the wind? The old woman in the demon mask? The hole into which the bodies of dead samurai were cast? Those are burned into my brain. Looking at Onibaba from the point of view of a Western horror geek, I couldn't help but notice mythic resonances with the Sawney Bean myth, in which rural travelers are waylaid by the locals. Indeed, the first time I saw Onibaba, I was convinced that it was some kind of missing link between the walk through the cane field in Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's a film that encompasses a range of horror traditions, though in retrospect, it is uniquely its own thing deriving from traditions of which I was ignorant at the time. The intervening decade has changed my perception of Onibaba a little. Not much. It's still one of the great horror movie and it's still a movie that I love unreservedly. It's more a matter of placing it in the context of the Japanese New Wave, of the pinku eiga, and of the generation of filmmakers to whom director Kaneto Shindô belongs.
Onibaba opens with two samurai fleeing pursuers through a sea of tall grasses. When they stop and rest, they are killed by spears lancing out of the grass. These are wielded by two women who make their living during wartime by ambushing samurai and selling their gear. The women are related by marriage. The elder is the mother-in-law to the younger. The son/husband has been swept up by the wars, leaving the women to fend for themselves. They pitch the samurai they murder into a gaping hole in the earth. It's a hard existence. Into this comes Hachi, a no-account friend of the son/husband, returned from the war with news that their man has died after they both escaped from an enemy camp. Hachi left him behind. The old woman is unforgiving of this. The young woman is more forgiving, particularly now that there is a man around to satisfy her frustrated sexual needs. The old woman is panicked by this, convinced that Hachi will take her daughter-in-law away and she'll have no one. She contrives to seduce Hachi herself, but is rejected. Then, one night while her daughter has snuck away to see Hachi, her hut is invaded by a samurai wearing the mask of a demon. The samurai compels her at spear point to lead him out of the grass. When she asks why the he wears the demon mask, he tells her that he is too handsome to walk with his face uncovered. Instead of leading him out of the grass, the woman leads him instead to the hole, where she lures him to his death. She takes the mask, discovering a hideously deformed face beneath it. She begins to fill her daughter-in-law's head with tales of the hell waiting for sexual sinner and then appears to her daughter-in-law wearing the demon mask. The younger woman is terrorized, convinced that a demon has come to take her to hell. But the mask bears with it a curse, it seems, and after wearing it during a storm, the old woman can no longer take it off...
Onibaba is based on a Buddhist parable intended to encourage the chastity of women. Like most things about this film, the original intent of the story is upended. Like his contemporaries--Shohei Imamura, for instance, or Kihachi Okamoto--director Kaneto Shindô is intent on upending a social order he finds restrictive and corrupt. The sexual mores behind Onibaba's plot are only one example of this, but it is the most striking. This is a sexual hothouse of a movie, in which the relationships between its characters are governed by their mutual lusts for each other. There's a hint of incestuous desire in the old woman's need to keep her daughter-in-law close. There's more than a hint of frustrated libido when Hachi rejects the old woman. The disastrous endgame of the old woman's attempts to gaslight her daughter-in-law suggest that human nature will have its way and getting in the way is a road to heartache. In this regard, Onibaba is a direct ancestor of the pinku films of the 1970s with their perverse sexualities and their weird allegories.
Onibaba has more on its mind, though. This is a film that absolutely despises war and those who wage it. This is a deconstruction of the samurai movie and of Japanese militarism in general. The conflicts between samurai are always shown from a distance in this film: across a wide expanse of river, for instance, or as smoke on the horizon. There's a strong measure of contempt for the samurai and their bushido code in the way the women desecrate the bodies of the samurai they kill. The conflicts of the samurai--indeed, war itself--is a source of only misery and ruin for the people in this movie, whether from starvation, the death of their loved ones, or the threat of violence. The only samurai we get to know even a little bit wears the mask of a demon. That bushido code is at the heart of the Japanese social order--it's a core of the mindset that led Japan into fascism and war in the first half of the 20th Century, and it's a theme that Shindô has examined elsewhere (most notably in Children of the Atom Bomb and in his screenplay for Suzuki's Elegy of Violence). The atomic bomb makes an oblique appearance in this movie in the faces of the demon-masked samurai, and then the old woman once she is able to get the mask off her face. The disfigurements in this films bear a horrifying resemblance to burn victims from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This is also a rebuke to the kind of suffering portrait of noble womanhood one finds in the films of, say, Kenji Mizoguchi (to whom Shindô apprenticed early in his career). This is a portrait of life on the margins more in line with the Japanese New Wave's focus on lowlifes and outlaws. This is underlined somewhat by the casting of its leads. Nobuko Otawa, who plays the older woman, was a veteran of Mizoguchi's films, while Jitsuko Yoshimura's previous two films were Imamura's Pigs and Battleships and The Insect Woman, both of which share thematic similarities with Onibaba. Kei Sato, one of Nagisa Oshima's favorites, forms the hat trick as Hachi. Onibaba lets the audience decide how to feel about the womens' occupation. It doesn't judge how people survive when pushed to the very edge, though in its way, it suggests that we all inhabit a hell of our own making.
Shindô places his conflicts and his actors against a startling background of swaying grass. The rustling of tall grass in the wind is ever-present and the waves that move across it form a huge part of the film's visual texture. Its other settings are deep in the ground: inside the hole where the dead samurai are thrown and in the cave where the merchant who buys the murdered samurais' gear lives are strikingly similar. Shindô occasionally appoints the film with memento mori like a branch filled with ravens or the carpet of skeletons at the bottom of the hole, but he's not overbearing with this. More interesting is how he takes the image of the grass and varies it. Sometimes, it's naturalistic and beautiful, at others, he uses it to create theatrical chiaroscuro effects. This is a film that embraces the theatrical roots of Japanese cinema for effect. It's a visual sensibility that informs the way the demon mask is lit and shot, as well--a technique that gives it a measure of expression This is something the film borrows from Noh theater. The cross pollination of the lyrically natural and the theatrically abstract is distinctive. Onibaba leaves a lingering visual memory. It leaves a persisting sense of unease.
Note: this was originally written for a blogathon that was canceled. If the organizers relaunch, I'll pick a different movie, I guess