Director: Kaneto Shindo | Runtime: 1h 43mins | Drama, Horror | Language: Japanese
Two women make a living by killing Samurai and selling their clothes for food. When an acquaintance comes back from the war, the relationship between the two women becomes fragile.
Japan have always excelled at the connection between narrative and the spiritual breakdown of it’s characters, films like Woman in the Dunes (1964) and much of Sion Sono’s work are great examples, and Onibaba feels no different. Using it’s war-time setting to give it’s story that animalistic edge, as well as the mystique of it’s narrative.
Shindo paints his world in a similar way to an apocalypse, using acts of desperation and a comfort for murder to open his film up to many bizarre possibilities. But despite the characteristics being gruff the setting is still beautifully shot, using the vast reed fields as pockets of mystery and unpredictability.
Those unpredictabilities are what the two women (played by Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura) use to kill their prey, and eventually make a life for themselves. The women are credited as ‘Kichi’s Mother’ and ‘Kichi’s Wife’, a faceless character that supposedly died while in the war. But when Kichi’s friend Hachi comes home and takes a liking to his late friends wife, it’s the older woman who becomes obsessive and meddling.
Supposedly the story is based on a religious parable, but Shindo does well to stretch this into a mystical narrative of his own…
This is where the animalistic tendencies of it’s characters come through, using a primitive approach to it’s sex-scenes as well the occasional barking like a dog in heat. At first appearance though these make the secretive characters the villains, the ones leaving the older woman behind and disrespecting the legacy of the dead. But what Shindo does wonderfully is subvert the way we see each character by the end.
Of course this movie is most famous for the use of the Hannya mask (a traditional Japanese theatre mask), which Kichi’s Mother uses as a paranoia device against her daughter-in-law. Spouting stories of sin and demons in order her to scare her, she eventually becomes a victim of her own jealousy. Supposedly the story is based on a religious parable, but Shindo does well to stretch this into a mystical narrative of his own, without the interference of it’s religious roots.
Onibaba is an expression of the traditional and of the fabled, and despite it not being as visionary as a lot of Japanese films of a similar time, it stands on its own two feet as an interpretative story. But its attention should stretch further than the iconicism of its props, deserving more than just the cult status it currently has.