Monday, 28 February 2011

Onibaba (1964)

Country: JAPAN

Devil Woman
The Hole
The Ogress
The Witch
The Demon

Legendary Japanese filmmaker Kaneto Shindô directed his 45th feature film Ichimai no Hagaki in 2010 at the tender age of 98. Born in Hiroshima in 1912 Shindô has also written some 158 screenplays, making him easily one of the most prolific filmmakers in world cinema. Shindô’s failure to secure the type of distribution enjoyed by Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu remains a mystery. His early films are slightly more visible in the West. In recent times we have enjoyed pristine DVD presentations of The Naked Island (1960), Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968) and they have afforded us a glimpse into a highly stylised and expressive formal style that is both challenging and invigorating. The latter two titles have also illustrated Shindô’s ability to meld this formal eloquence with popular genres and past theatrical traditions. However the unavailability of Children of Hiroshima (1952) still remains a mystifying aberration. It is certainly the case that as the 1960’s wore on Shindô’s work became less distinctive and his interest in social purpose took a back seat to explorations of sexuality. But as we saw in Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976), sex in its purest form can be a potent political and social weapon. The success of his quasi historical horror film Onibaba isn’t particularly surprising as it retains just enough generic signifiers to satisfy western audiences, and possessed the added draw of an unusually frank exploration of frustrated sexuality.

Shindô also wrote the screenplay for Onibaba and he conjures up a rich and troubling vision of life in 14th Century feudal Japan. This is a country torn asunder by civil war, a land of ruptured family units and harsh poverty. The unifying concern for those people on the fringes of society are food and survival. Shindô paints a broad canvas exploring the extent to which people will go in order to ensure their survival. The levels of resourcefulness are admirable, even if the outcome is death and moral decay. One of the most shocking moments of Onibaba occurs in the first few minutes. We follow two battle hardened and exhausted samurai as they fight their way through the strangulating and ever present reeds and grass of a swamp like environment. Although they can barely stand, their armour and their swords communicate an expertise in the art of killing. From nowhere they are speared to death. We expect to see their opponents in war emerge from the reeds, but instead we see two women; one old and one young. The nobility of the samurai is no more. They lie dead at the feet of two women who add to their humiliation by stripping them of their armour. This is an undignified end indeed, which only gets worse when they are unceremoniously kicked into a hole in the earth which the women have utilised on more than one occasion. Shindô maintains this attitude to samurai throughout the film; they are the root cause of the problems, and are punished and treated with the disdain they serve.

The two women (superb performances from Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura) are motivated purely by the need for food. The absence of a man who was both son and husband has led to desperate measures. But this is commerce in the age of warfare. The samurai become a commodity that the women can sell, they have managed to create a mental barrier that has divested these men of humanity, they are now simply fodder in a consumerist machine. At this point the women do not appear to be paying a moral cost for their survival, but when sex rears its head in the shape of returning soldier Hachi (Kei Satô) the tone of the film shifts, and we implicitly know that behaviour from now on will have a cost. The sexual hunger of all three characters becomes more rapacious and consuming than any hunger for food. The younger women is able to file away the death of her husband very rapidly in the face of her own sexual frustration. The older women meanwhile begins to develop a corrosive sexual jealousy (in one scene she even uses a tree to relieve her torment) and Shindô presents this in incredibly sensual and erotic tones. The heat, the lashing cooling rains, the reeds whipping at the young woman’s body as she runs to Hachi, the jealous rage of the mother, and the unspoken bitterness make Onibaba a sultry and physical delight.

The film completely eschews the supernatural until the end. The older woman punishes the younger with a demon mask she took from a samurai she tricked into the hole. The hole itself I should say is a highly symbolic device. A scene in which Hachi stares deep into its unfathomable depths and cries out “I need a woman” needs no further elucidation from me. But the old woman makes a fatal error in utilising the doctrines and myths of Buddhism in order to salve her jealousy. The moralistic twist ending punishes her for this and indicates that Shindô’s sympathies lie with the young woman who is free to explore her sexuality. Onibaba is a claustrophobic tale of entrapment, poverty, and the raw heat of sexuality. It presents a land enclosed within high reeds and swollen rivers, grasses that sway lethargically in the stifling heat, imprisoning people in their oppressive and secretive world.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Brilliant dissertation, Shaun. I haven't watched this in some time, but I recall the very first time I became aware of the film. It was a photo of the character wearing that tengu mask from this book from '84 called HORRORS: A HISTORY OF HORROR MOVIES. I still have this book. Something about the image fascinated me and I never caught the film till it hit DVD from Criterion. It was one of the titles I was most excited to obtain. It didn't quite live up to expectations, but I definitely plan to give it another go in future. KURONEKO is quite, good, too, as you mentioned above.

  2. Many thanks Brian :-)

    Yes the film is full of distinctive images and moments. I forgot to mention the scene in the film where the two women kill a dog and then eat it! It's a shame it didn't fully live up to your expectations, it has always been one of my favourites. I reviewed KURONEKO a few months back Brian...feel free to check it out...thanks for stopping by.

  3. I liked it, I think over the years I had built up this image of what the film was supposed to be. It wasn't the big supernatural horror film I was expecting. No doubt watching it again I will see it in a new perspective.

  4. I enjoyed this one, its got a spooky vibe to it because the two women live in total isolation away from the rest of society, so they are left to their own devices. It's one of the issues presented on the film, how these women attack with no remorse or fear of being reprimanded for their actions because they live so far apart from everyone.

    Also, the theme of the lower class trying to survive at whatever costs in times of war was an interesting one. I was under the assumption that this one was a horror film when I first checked it out, turns out I was wrong. The supernatural elements as you mentioned, are kept to a minimum, but they are there.

    Love those quiet moments when the wind hits the grass in the middle of nowhere. Japanese equivalent for atmosphere?

  5. I have been fighting to see this one for quite some time, but every time I throw it on Netflix, the wife and kid manage to make it unwatchable. Will have to return to compare notes after I finally finish the film Shaun!

  6. @ Franco - yes the class subtext comes through quite strongly here, as it also does in Shindo's thematically similar KURONEKO. They are both leftist works in my view. The supernatural rears its head very briefly to punish those that don the demon mask, but aside from this the supernatural is steadfastly avoided.

    @ Carl - I look forward to reading your review in the future Carl, I feel confident you will find much of value and interest in ONIBABA.


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