Kaneto Shindo’s horror masterpiece Onibaba (1964) is set in a world gone to pieces. Ravaged by civil war, the farmers of rural Japan must sacrifice the last vestiges of their pride, trading whatever they can scavenge for a sack or two of millet. This may sound like Seven Samurai territory, but Shindo indulges in none of Kurosawa’s humanism. Nope: this is a pitch-black vision of brutality and despair, right down to the corpses piling up in that deep, dark hole.
Onibaba is loosely adapted from a medieval Buddhist allegory, and traces of this remain in the film’s deceptive simple narrative. An old woman with a shock of Bride of Frankenstein-white hair (Nobuko Otowa) and her feral daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) trap the weary samurai who pass through their field of tall grass while fleeing the war. After swiftly murdering them, they dispose of the bodies using the film’s central symbol and plot device (the afore-mentioned hole), then barter the armor and weaponry for food. It’s a lifestyle born of desperate circumstances that seals the women together in a symbiotic relationship.
But then Hachi comes back. He’s an old friend of younger woman’s husband who claims he saw his companion killed. Played by Kei Sato, Hachi is lecherous and self-interested, a fitting addition to a family that has become barely human. His horny interest in the younger woman threatens to break up the partnership, and drives the three of them into a series of sexual power plays. Then, one night, a samurai clad in a demonic mask shows up, and throws the movie on a whole different path.
I’ll be honest: Onibaba is one of my favorite horror movies. Like of all time. Like ever. Like I started cackling in glee when I saw it was the new FGFC choice. It’s so unrelentingly dark (tonally and visually), but it has a sense of humor that cuts like a knife. It’s a horror movie where the status quo is monstrous, and we just go straight down from there. The masked intruder is easily the film’s most sympathetic character; as for the older woman, she’s at her scariest when she’s suffering the most, brought down by her own instinctive self-preservation.
And oh man, do I even want to dive into the political and sexual intricacies of this film? Yeah, I guess I do. It convincingly builds up this image of a world “turned upside down,” where all values have been debased, where all institutions – marriage and family included – have been corrupted. From there, the characters’ inhumane actions flow organically; they’re natural responses to such a toxic environment. It’s in this environment that the hole becomes of tantamount importance. As women, our antiheroines are expected to keep the homefires burning until their patriarch returns from war.
But they refuse to lie back and wait like Miyagi, the patient wife in Mizoguchi’s beautiful Ugetsu Monogatari. The field and hole are functional extensions of their own bodies, territory and tools that they possess. The hole is such a multifarious image: it’s (first and foremost) a vagina, it’s a mouth, it’s the last stop in a socioeconomic system. (It’s capitalism!) It’s an all-consuming entity perfectly suited to a time of war. (Also, full disclosure: a couple years ago I wrote a term paper for a Japanese Cinema class with the uncreative title “Life During Wartime: Gender and Violence in Onibaba.)
All of this proliferating symbolism doesn’t feel overbearing, though, because it’s conveyed with such a light touch. Shindo, who was peripherally associated with the Japanese New Wave, makes this centuries-old tale feel unexpectedly modern through his kinetic directorial style, some jarring jump cuts (especially in the film’s closing moments), and a dissonant, sometimes jazzy score. Shot in high-contrast black and white, Onibaba is a distinctly sensual film, filled with beads of dripping sweat, blades of swaying grass, and not-infrequent moans of orgasmic pleasure.
Did I say sensual? I meant “carnal.” The main characters are creatures of the flesh in the most literal sense possible. When the older woman says that Hachi is “like a dog after a bitch,” we believe it: he barks, sniffs, and humps like Marmaduke in heat. Yoshimura’s performance as the younger woman is easily my favorite, though. She has only a handful of lines or facial expressions throughout the film, communicating mostly through her eyes and body language. (This subtlety is a stark contrast with Sato’s hysterics.) She scarfs down her food as if it’s a sexual act, and seems totally removed from any “civilized” society – she’s the noble savage archetype turned on its head.
And, in one of the film’s many convoluted ironies, she’s no more monstrous than her more worldly mother-in-law and lover. Indeed, it’s the mother’s self-serving appropriation of anti-sex religious puritanism that leads to the anguish and mutilation at the film’s end. In Onibaba, eroticism and nudity are among the unavoidable facts of life; as the younger woman says about sex, “Everybody does it!” The two women sleep topless side by side, and it’s totally nonsexual. They do it because it’s hot outside.
With a healthy dose of dark humor, Onibaba sets about inverting everything we take for granted, whether in contemporary society or in horror movies. It’s so sexually and morally perverse, a monster movie told from the perspective of three pathetic, childish monsters. It’s sexy, it’s understated, it’s disgusting… what more could you want? I’ll close with my favorite moment from Onibaba: it’s a line of dialogue that I find emblematic of everything great and scary about this movie.
P.S. – The younger woman’s first line is “Serves him right!”; later, after dropping the masked samurai down the well, the older woman laughs, “Serves you right.” Could this be a thematically resonant repeated line? I think it could!