So I happily admit to having a bit of a thing for classical Japanese cinema these days. Been trying to spread out the reviews so this doesn’t become Japanese Cinema Dump but it’s nearly Halloween and I felt like reviewing what is generally considered the precursor to the J-Horror genre. This film was recommended to me by Mark Cousins, director of The Story Of Film and, most recently, Here Be Dragons. I asked him to recommend either this or Kuroneko, and Onibaba was his pick. So, was his recommendation a good one? You’ll have to click the link below to find out I guess. Although he did feature this film in The Story Of Film so… yeah… it’s pretty good.
This review will contain spoilers. To discuss the film’s horror aspects makes spoilers a requirement I’m afraid.
Onibaba is set in Nanboku-Cho period of Japan, that’s late 14th century to those of us that don’t know what all these Japanese periods are. The story follows a older and a younger woman who have no given name in the film, who live amongst a seemingly never ending field of reeds. The poverty they are left in due to the war has led them to killing wounded soldiers and selling their armour and belongings for food. When a soldier named Hachi (Kei Sato) returns from the war with news that the older woman’s son, the younger woman’s husband, has died the two women are left facing the possibility of never escaping this poverty. The Younger Woman (Jitsuko Yoshimura) begins an affair with Hachi which soon creates tension with the Older Woman (Noboku Otawa). The Older Woman sets out to drive a wedge between them fearing that the Younger Woman will leave her. Eventually she meets a samurai wearing a Oni (Demon) mask and leads him to his death. She then begins to use the Oni mask to scare the Younger Woman out of her affair.
For the most part Onibaba is a period drama that explores erotic desire, commercialism and emotional dependency. For a film made in 1964 in Japan the film has an incredible amount of female nudity and sex, all done without any sensationalism but whilst also being aware that the audience may be watching for that reason. By which I mean there’s a lot of lingering shots. The commercialism is explored by the need to use whatever means the two women can to keep themselves afloat, the boundaries they’ll cross in order to allow themselves to get by. The emotional dependency is brought up with the Older Woman’s need of the Younger Woman as she feels she will not survive without her. Meanwhile the Younger Woman needs Hachi as she is now a widow and he’s the only male nearby. She may fall for him but she’s sleeping with him as much out of desperation as love. She feels she’ll be alone forever now that her husband is dead, and whilst Hachi may not be ideal, he’s there for her.
The horror aspect come later though. In the film’s second half the Older Woman uses the Oni mask mentioned earlier to terrify the Younger Woman after filling her head with Buddhist tales of sinners going to purgatory. The film itself is based on a Buddhist tale. The mask itself fills in for the role of judgement for sins. When the Older Woman tries to remove it from the dead Samurai’s corpse she struggles initially. His face is covered in burns and scars. This comes to afflict the Older Woman as the mask becomes stuck to her face. I should probably tell you that I’m explaining most of the film here. I’ll put a warning up top somewhere. The way the mask comes to symbolise punishment for the crimes committed is quite a regular feature amongst all horror, but particularly Japanese horror. The evil forces in a lot of Japanese horror usually have some sort of tragic moral story behind their current condition. In many ways Onibaba is a film about one such tragic tale that would be told to scare children in the following centuries.
There’s an element of Noh Theatre to the use of the mask and how it is shot. Often unique camera angles are employed to depict the emotional state of the wearer, in much the same way as a Noh Theatre performer will tilt and angle their head for a similar effect. At times the mask can look angered, fearful and sorrowful with just the smallest change in the shot set up and lighting. When the mask comes into the film, suddenly, the feel of the film begins to shift from a classical Japanese aesthetic to something more heavily stylised. The film does happen to exist at a tipping point of Japanese cinema between the popularity of these two conflicting stylistic methods of direction.
The director, Kaneto Shindo, sets the film within an endless sea of reeds that serve a story purpose, to allow the women to commit their crimes, whilst also representing being lost within an inescapable environment. The reeds surround and confine them. There’s no landmarks apart from a river. A hole the women use to dispose of their victims is easily hidden amongst the reeds and its near invisible nature plays a central role in the plot. Shindo takes every chance he can to just show you the reeds swaying in the wind, often up close but many shots showing the vastness of their reach helping to enhance the feeling of isolation.
Onibaba is a superb film deserving of being in every film students educational materials. There’s much to learn about Japanese cinema, tradition and thematics in this one film alone. It’s a historical drama that swerves into horror effortlessly without once compromising the sheer quality. The film has a cult status these days, along with Shindo’s companion piece Kuroneko. It deserves so much more. If my words do give you the desire to hunt this work down then I suggest either the Eureka (If in the UK) published version. The restoration is incredible and a strong argument for the beauty of black & white film. I’m not sure if there has been a US blu ray release but Criterion had released it on DVD, so get that if you must. A stunning work. Thanks Mark!