‘Onibaba’ was released in 1964, and is a black and white Japanese film directed by Kaneto Shindo. It’s often billed as horror, and it is certainly horrific, but not in the way you might expect.
In fourteenth century Japan, during a time of civil war, two peasant women (Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura), struggle to survive. They have taken to ambushing fleeing soldiers and samurai, killing them and selling their possessions. There is a mysterious hole in the middle of a field where they dump the bodies. One day a man called Hachi (Kei Sato) comes to see them. He is a neighbour who was taken away to fight in the war along with the older woman’s son and younger woman’s husband. (The women are never named.) He tells them their family member is dead. After a while he seduces the young woman, who sneaks out every night to sleep with him. Her mother-in-law, fearful she will be left alone and unable to survive, meets a ssamurai who wears a weird, demonic mask. This situation gives the woman ideas about how to resolve her problem.
One of the first things that struck me while watching this was the way that music is used. It is sparing, and a lot of the film has no music at all. There are bursts of music during moments of violence, such as when they are murdering the soldiers. It is quite dissonant, adding to the ambience of violence and evil. Later music is used when Hachi and the widow are getting together. She is shown running to his hut several times, and always the same eerie music plays. It’s very ominous – it is predicting violence as the outcome in the same way music played during violent moments.
There isn’t a lot of dialogue. The film runs about ten minutes before anyone says anything. There are bursts of conversation like there are bursts of music. Often these conversations are as dissonant as the music, and as threatening. Hachi does the most talking, and his story about how their family member died is somewhat dubious. It’s hard not to suspect him of having left the other in the lurch to save himself. After all, he talks about being beaten up and there is no sign of that. He talks, shouts, yells, just to make a noise, to fill up the silence. He is not concerned with anything beyond himself – he shows no real affection for the widow, just lust. The camera follows his gaze to show how he is staring at her and ogling her. His ultimate fate is as random and meaningless as his life.
The setting of the film is very important. The characters live in a rural area, in straw huts surrounded by tall grasses, growing above their heads. This environment lends itself to secrecy – the grass impedes vision and allows the characters to approach without being seen and spy on each other, by hiding in the grass or peering through gaps in the huts. The sound of the wind through the grasses is prevalent during the film. It’s a constant and unsettling background to the events. The camera lingers on the grasses waving in the wind. In some moments, especially towards the end of the film, the film is slowed during these moments, and the slower motion of the grass stems makes them seem sinuous, almost alive. In a way the grass itself becomes a character and witness to the events. There are many contrasts of the sunlit field to the darkness of the interiors of the huts and caves.
The introduction of the mask-wearing samurai into the story is sudden and unexpected. The mother is quite right to fear for her life, as the man’s behaviour (as well as the mask) is not reassuring. At that time in Japan a samurai would have thought nothing of killing a peasant and the peasants expected no better, so her fears are justified. Her getting the better of him is simple and clever, as he does not expect a peasant and a woman to be a threat. She has told her daughter-in-law a story she heard from a Christian priest about going to hell, in order to frighten her and stop her seeing Hachi.
This does not work, but this is the point where the plot enters into an (apparently) supernatural element. I can’t really talk about this without spoiling the story, but the mask is the important element.
As a short aside, that is one hell of a scary mask! They should sell that for Hallowe’en.
The ending is ambiguous. This can be frustrating, but in this situation it was appropriate, because in a sense it didn’t really matter what came next. The jump across the literal and figurative abyss showed the characters are all doomed. The mother-in-law’s final words are ‘I’m not a demon, I’m a human being!’ Given her many murders, as well as her lies and manipulation, the audience might well question that statement. But no one is innocent in this story, and there is no escape.
‘Onibaba’ is a beautifully directed film, with excellent performances by its small cast. It maintains a level of unease throughout, that sustains the viewer through a slow-moving story. Its horror is in its characters, and their horrific behaviour. I would highly recommend it.