Onibaba (1964)

Class: Staff
Author: J.L. Carrozza
Score: (5/5)
June 23, 2009 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Onibaba is one of my all time favorite Japanese films of all time, the film, a psychodrama with some mild horror elements, like, say, Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls is a work with highly minimalist resources taken to a cinematic level few massive budget films even achieve. Directed by maverick Kaneto Shindo, a fine leftist indie filmmaker who also made the harrowing The Naked Island, the film was shot with a tiny cast in a real rural area of Japan. The results are simply stunning and the film is an intensely rich one. The cinematography is beautiful and the plot is deep food for thought. It, along with such films as Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes and Toshio Matsumoto's Funeral Parade of Roses, is a fine example of the burning creativity that was going on largely outside of the Japanese studio system in the very studio-run 1960s.

The film's plot is simple. Sometime in the Warring States period of Japanese history, two unnamed women, one middle aged (Nobuko Otawa), the other young (Jitsuko Yoshimura) survive on a "kill-to-live" basis. They live in a field, once farmed by the woman's son and the girl's husband, now overgrown and turned into a sea of reeds, which they lure fleeing samurai into. The samurai are then killed by the women, who strip them of their armor, toss their bodies into a stinking pit and then exchange the armor for food. This works for a while, but one day Hachi (Kei Sato), the son's friend, returns from the war, saying that the women's son/husband was killed. It's not long before he starts to romance the girl, which infuriates her mother-in-law. One day, the older woman meets a disfigured samurai warrior wearing a hideous mask. She lures him into the pit and takes the mask, which she then uses to frighten her daughter-in-law. One rainy night, however, the mask sticks to her face.

Onibaba embodies everything I love about Japanese cinema. Featuring only three prominent characters, two of whom don't even have names and set entirely in a field filled with swaying reeds, it's a shining example of how one requires few resources save for tenacity to make a brilliant film. The cinematography by Kiyomi Kuroda, who worked with Shindo for many years from The Naked Island on, is some of the most gorgeous monochrome cinematography ever lensed. Everything in the film is filmed in stark, high contrast black and white Tohoscope and its images, from the haunting backdrop of the film's swaying reeds to the horrifying, grinning visage of the Japanese hanya Noh mask to the skull filled, cavernous bottom of the pit in which the women dispose of the bodies of their victims, are filled with an indelible power that burns into your mind nearly as strongly as they are burned onto their film stock. The film features some for the time very daring nudity and sexuality which resulted in it being censored the world over, even in Japan, where a second's glimpse of pubic hair, still largely forbidden in Japanese media, caused many ruffled feathers at Eirin, Japan's board of film censors.

The music by Hikaru Hayashi, another frequent Kaneto Shindo collaborator, is very effective, with an almost violent and hysterical sound that perfectly suits its "dog-eat-dog" setting of medieval near-anarchy. Even more effective is the sound mix by Tetsuya Ohashi that is almost as effective, eerie and atmospheric as the film's visuals. If one listens closely before most of the more intense scenes, such as where a character screams, you can hear a quieter version of the sound sort of "reverse echo" starting a second before it actually starts. This is a nicely unsettling effect that adds a slight level of 'anticipation' to the scares on hand here.

The script is phenomenal and, as usual with Shindo, highly politically charged. The film delves into the desperate measures wartime and equally desperate circumstances create even with so-called average people with the two otherwise normal women, robbed of their farming livelihood due to the loss of their son/husband to war, who must resort to a life of murder to even stay alive. This is a particularly relevant message for the audiences of Japan, who less than two decades prior saw similar circumstances arise for many thanks to their involvement in World War II. Shindo's almost equally impressive later film Kuroneko (1968) would meld a similar theme with a much stronger horror element. With their stark black and white visual schemes, brutal medieval settings and deeply existentialist themes, Onibaba and Kuroneko are very reminiscent of an Eastern equivalent to Ingmar Bergman's “medieval Sweden” films like The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring. In Onibaba, the characters are well portrayed, particularly by Shindo's wife Nobuko Otowa as the older woman. She truly plays her as a scheming, conniving, narcissistic and highly manipulative individual and her final fate, while viscerally horrifying, is strangely satisfying as well. Fine character actor Kei Sato (a common face in the films of both Shindo and Masaki Kobayashi) also shines as the lecherous Hachi. The character arc is well handled, as the older woman and her daughter-in-law are at first very closely-knit but their relationship deteriorates quickly into a massive passive-aggressive power struggle driven as much by the old woman's fear of annihilation (if the girl abandons her for Hachi she will not be able to survive any longer) as by her jealously over their relationship and sexual frustration. All these emotions culminate in the film's gut-punch finale which is where the film becomes, if only mildly, a horror film.

Overall, Onibaba is absolutely one of my very favorite films to come from the nation of Japan, its virtues are so vast in number and it is so very thematically and cinematically rich that it comes with only the highest recommendation from me. It's a shame, though, that more of Shindo's films are not available on DVD even in Japan. Shindo, interestingly enough, is almost a century old now and still very much alive and working on films. Now there's a true filmmaker if I ever saw one.