In Kaneto Shindô’s mesmerising “Onibaba” two nameless and impoverished peasant women – a middle-aged mother and her younger daughter-in-law – survive in 15th century feudal Japan by eking out a harsh subsistence living amid mud and marshlands during a time of tumultuous civil war, social chaos and great famine known to history as the Warring States period. Hiding among the perpetually swaying fields of towering suzuki grass lining the riverbank near their makeshift thatched hut, the two feral women ambush then ruthlessly murder tired and wounded samurai conscripts fleeing the brutal skirmishes taking place nearby -- striping the corpses and selling the recovered swords and armour to black marketeers, in return for the handfuls of rice which enable their continued existence.
The naked and bloodied bodies of their hapless victims end up being thrust down a mysterious deep black hole in the ground -- hidden from view among the tall grass -- which only the women seem to be aware of. It becomes a graphic double metaphor for what motivates them: a gaping toothless maw representing their immediate need to go on killing in order just to be able to to feed themselves; and a ragged, all-consuming vaginal cavity -- a gross signifier of the human sex drive: necessary for the continuation of the human species in general but also the cause of stressful upheavals in the desperately brutal hand-to-mouth existence the two women have been driven to forge for themselves.
For sex opens up a new battlefront in this war of attrition when a returning neighbour and former friend of the man who was both son and husband respectively to the two women, turns up alone and informs them of their loved one’s recent death. The mother/daughter-in-law duo had till then been waiting on him to come back to them from the wars to end their plight. Now Hachi the neighbour invites himself over to form a new trio with the women, and they at first attempt to continue as before in the subsistence killing business. But desire inevitably intrudes on the set up when Hachi turns his gaze upon his deceased friend’s nubile young widow. The mother-in-law is torn with jealously and tormented by her own re-awakened and enflamed sexuality in the light of this development, but she also comes to the realisation that she is liable to be cast out of the equation as unnecessary baggage, with probable extinction the likely result… unless she can find some way of ending the liaison between her former killing partner and this upstart male intruder. When a lost aristocratic Samurai General comes calling at the women’s hut one night (looking for the roadway that will lead him back to the fighting), while the younger woman is away visiting her new lover, the demonic ‘Hannya’ mask he sports -- worn as a means of scaring his enemies in battle -- gives the bereaved mother an idea that leads her to think she just might have stumbled on the perfect scheme for attaining her wish.
“Onibaba” is a genre-defying masterpiece of greatly contrasting cinematic styles and techniques that come together like alchemy to produce a work of extraordinary momentum and lasting power. It’s a stark tale grounded in a compelling symbolism which examines what it means to struggle for survival, foregrounding the most elemental of human drives. Sexual longing, terror, greed and jealousy are the engines which motor this basic form of existence, and are provided with a realistic setting in the film while also rendered in an intensely poetic form. For director Kaneto Shindô, who died in 2012 aged 100, the film represented something of a departure in style, incorporating elements of popular Buddhist folklore with suggestions of the supernatural, in a framework that seemed to some contemporaries at the time of the film’s release to represent a debasement of Shindô’s former work, which had always been grounded in historical reality and often dealt with social issues and subjects affecting the common man. One of the recurrent themes in his prior work had been the exploration of the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Shindô’s birthplace of Hiroshima, and the effects on the surviving communities who still lived there -- it was a subject that his films frequently addressed directly throughout the 1950s, after an initial post-war period during which all discussion of the topic had been previously banned by the visiting American forces.
Shindô worked as an assistant to Kenji Mizoguchi in his early days as a screenwriter before the war; later he wrote political dramas and social critique movies as well as more populist fare. After forming the independent production company Kindai Eiga Kyokai with Kozaburo Yoshimura and his actor friend Taiji Tonoyama in 1950, he took to writing and directing his own films. “Onibaba” (“The Demoness”) was the follow up to Shindô’s 1960 film “The Naked Island” (“Hadaka no shima”) a harsh realistic depiction, shot without dialogue, of island living for a small family of water-dependent farmers in contemporary Japan. The historical setting and the folkloric overtones of supernatural intrigue in “Onibaba” play to popular perceptions of Japanese cinema which became prominent during its golden era of international acclaim, but what really divided critics was its raw, unvarnished depiction of sexuality and its erotic yet naturalistic representation of the female form.
The two female stars of the film, Nobuko Otowa (Shindô’s lover and artistic muse at the time, who appeared in nearly all of his previous films) and her nineteen-year-old co-star Jitsuko Yoshimura are topless for a good portion of the movie, during an era when you wouldn’t expect to be presented with such frank sights in the cinema. Although such scenes successfully evoke the women’s forceful sexuality, they never appear calculated to arouse the audience’s loins in a prurient way: Otowa’s face has been harshly pencil-lined to theatrically accentuate the idea of her being greatly aged, with sunken eyes and a perpetual scowl transforming her features -- a streak of skunk white offsetting her ragged jet black mane, even as she stands amid the reeds with robe open and nipples erect like a fearless warrior woman; the younger Yoshimura meanwhile, looks almost boyish with her stern features and choppily bob-cut hair. The two are initially shown living an almost regimented life, perfectly in step with each other, often mirroring each other’s actions; but it’s also a life dominated by almost unimaginable levels of brutality that are only punctuated by brief exhausted lulls during which they hurriedly gobble down handfuls of rice or attempt to snatch sleep, spread-eagled, naked and sweating in the airless summer heat of their darkened hovel of a hut.
Shindô depicts without any judgemental subtext the enforced harshness of the two women’s animalistic conditions of living, taking a simple, direct documentarians’ approach to this aspect of the film’s story when the two are shown, for instance, efficiently dispatching wounded soldiers or old warriors too feeble to defend themselves. At one point, the recumbent couple spy a small dog scampering among the grass tracts and in no time at all they have automatically jumped up and pounced upon it: bashing its skull in with a rock, they are next seen greedily wolfing down its remains over the fire! This is how forgotten people who have been abandoned by what remains of a society cling to existence in an era where all previous codes of civilisation have become an unaffordable luxury. But as essayist Doug Cummings writes in the accompanying Masters of Cinema booklet for this dual-disc BD/DVD release: the story may be set in medieval times, but this could just as well be a post-apocalyptic tale. In many ways the general tone of stoic desperation recalls the atmosphere of dystopian works such as Cormac McCarthy’ novel “The Road”.
The entire film was shot on location in the swampy confines of a stretch of grasslands in a corner of Japan’s Chiba prefecture, where the crew struggled with adverse weather conditions and biting insects to bring the story to the screen -- yet the visual results provide a rare mixture of earthy realism and poetic lyricism. Having established the symbiotic relationship between the two women, forged in their efforts to survive without a male figure to provide for them or any societal structure other than the low, dog eats dog world of the downtrodden and the dispossessed, the appearance of Hachi (Kei Satô) introduces unwelcome suspicion and in-group rivalry into their rapport, as well as jealousy. Hachi appears to be an amiable, friendly type of a character, but we soon surmise from his fireside account of how he has survived the war thus far by stealing the clothes of a monk before fleeing the chaotic scene of battle which led to the death of his friend Kitchi, that’s he’s also very wily and clever, correctly assuming that a monk would be more liable to escape the scene unscathed without being either forced to fight for one of the rival shogunates, or be killed by them.
The fact that he’s now the only man around for miles and that the protection of a male figure has the potential to make life much easier for her, understandably predisposes Kitch’s young widow towards acquiescing to Hachi’s persistent advances (and Hachi is more than aware of this fact too) and eventually she’s sneaking out of the hut in the dead of night and running through the Suzuki fields joyously in anticipation of meeting with him, while her former mother-in-law sleeps on; or else the younger woman spends the daylight hours forever searching for excuses to be apart from her former killing partner & associate so that she can secretly meet up with Hachi instead. The change in dynamic is not lost on the resentful older woman, who proves equally crafty in keeping an eye on the two lovers’ illicit rendezvous’. But she also has her own desires -- and her own designs on this lone male. Spying through a hole in the roof of Hachi’s hut when he meets up with the daughter-in-law for their torrid liaisons, the older woman is driven to distraction by sexual longing, rubbing herself against the trunk of a tree in frustration under the light of the moon, and later cornering the unwilling lover and desperately flaunting herself at him.
This intense human drama plays out in a landscape that is superbly rendered by a visual style which initially grounds the film in a punchy form of social realism: Kaneto Shindô’s regular director of photography Kiyomi Kuroda captures the unending bleakness of the landscape in a tonal palette of shades of grey: the featureless expanse of the river and its muddy banks; barren cloudless skies above swathes of land made indistinguishable by the seven foot high grass reeds which blanket it as far as the eye can see, disguising the battles for existence going on deep within it … this is the natural setting which also enables Shindô to suggest a symbolic underpinning to the tale: the forever undulating fields of Suzuki grass are an implicit signifier of the random pitilessness of the world at large and all its indifferent affairs. The grass reeds bend and sway as a constant backdrop to all the small-scale events focused on by the movie -- capitulating to the relentless buffeting of natural winds and simultaneously facilitating the idea of this localised story occurring unseen and unheeded as history marches on blind.
Such commitment to realism inclines some to interpret “Onibaba” purely as an historical film rather than a horror film, even though composer Hikaru Hayashi’s score consists of a persistent, violent cacophony of tribal drumming which frequently breaks in on complete silence to the accompaniment of modern jazz runs played on a decidedly un-13th century atonal saxophone – hardly a style that encourages one to view the film purely in the refined, distancing terms common to most period drama. There are other early indications that an undertow of dreamlike poeticism is intended: Shindô occasionally over-cranks or under-cranks the camera to create a variety of slow-motion or sped up film effects in relation to the swaying grass. The director also crafts a sound design that is incredibly ahead of its time, weaving an eerie ambient soundscape from abstract noises and bird calls which results in an otherworldly aura forming around his startling use of jump cuts and other quirky visual idiosyncrasies reminiscent of the sorts of ideas being road tested by the French New Wave directors of the time, and which anticipate some of David Lynch’s work in sound design and visuals for his films “Eraserhead” and “The Elephant Man”.
Yet, when it comes to the depiction of the portions of the story that take place during the night, then the language of German expressionism seems very much to have been in Shindô’s mind, judging by the stylised gothic/noir mode of lighting he employs in these scenes. His reliance on exterior locations adds a textural originality and uniqueness to his use of such light and shadow techniques which greatly removes the results he obtains from the look of their more controlled, studio-based environments -- the context we're more used to encountering the expressionist style in. “Onibaba” is a picture that just wouldn’t have worked very well if it had been shot in colour, as Shindô makes clear on the commentary track when he explains how the look of the film was manipulated with filters and careful placement of lights to create various different monochrome effects: intensively spot-lighting the grasslands at night makes the sky show up an inky black on film; but without any lights on at all the land tends to shows up black while the sky suddenly becomes white. By manipulating the image with pools of strategically placed spotlights a nightmarish and unfamiliar landscape is conjured up which provides a context in which full reign is given to the protagonists’ deepest desires and fears.
The mother-in-law’s encounter with a samurai General proceeds with an atmospheric, fairy tale-like somnambulism which evokes the surrealism of Jean Cocteau, while the scenes involving her attempts to scare her younger partner by donning the General’s Hannya mask and looming out at her from between the giant reeds of grass during a stormy typhoon, as the widow attempts to make the trek to Hachi’s hut in the night amid blasts of lightning, evokes both Japanese noh theatre traditions and western Gothic horror tropes simultaneously. The younger woman’s fear and guilt about what will happen if she transgresses sexually has by this stage already been successfully nurtured by the older woman’s calculated folkloric tales and vivid descriptions invoking the torments of Hell that might be visited upon those who aren’t circumspect enough about their enjoyment of the pleasures of the flesh -- and it becomes clear that one of the themes of the film is how religion and folklore are used to enshrine and enforce the policing of female sexuality. Shindô cunningly adapts a traditional religious fable about a bereaved widow whose mother-in-law resents the amount of time she spends at the temple praying for the souls of her dead husband and children. The mother-in-law puts on a demon mask one day and accosts the widow while she's on her way to the temple to pray, and thus attempts to scare her off and force her back home to help out with the house chores. However, when the mother-in-law gets back, she finds that she cannot remove the mask from her face until she has confessed her bad deed to the returning daughter-in-law and prayed to a local deity for forgiveness. This tale was designed to appeal to wives and mothers (who were considered the central pillars of the family in Japan), and encourages religious observance during a period when spending time at the temple might not seem like a justifiable priority while existence was so harsh and there was constantly work to be done at home.
But in the film, it is sexuality which is being obstructed and policed. The young daughter-in-law’s rapid flights through the grasslands at night to meet her lover are shot in the film’s most abstract and poetically charged forms, and represent her sense of freedom and the prospect of a sexual abandonment, as birds coo enticingly on the soundtrack. These joyful sprints through the blissful night are constantly obstructed and blocked, brought to a sudden end by the emergence of the mother-in-law’s demon-like pose, arms outstretched to obstruct the young woman’s path, her face obscured beneath the samurai’s mask with its grinning horned demon visage. Shindô’s cinematic use of supernatural imagery is powerful and striking but has very different aims to that which constitutes the familiar approach taken by western cinema, being more a wry comment on the manner in which the myths such imagery brings to life are used as weapons in the battle for dominance between the sexes and in warfare between the classes, and how they are part of the struggle for survival that’s depicted elsewhere in the film in much more earthy terms. Much of the imagery is still very suggestive of western horror cinema though, especially in scenes such as the one in which the older woman climbs into the pit that the two of them have been using to dispose of their victims, and crawls in the dark through piles of bones that make a horrid crunching sound underfoot, in order to retrieve the demon mask from a face which proves to be horribly mutilated when she finally succeeds in prising it from its former owner.
The film, then, overall, appears to take a cynical view regarding the societal function and nature of traditional beliefs about the supernatural, whilst also retaining such tales’ mythic and symbolic form for its story structure. Yet there is an undercurrent of mystery still in the screenplay’s retention of a key motif from the fable, that of the mask’s un-removability once used by the mother-in-law for her secret purpose. The film is also punctuated throughout by unexplained instances of facial disfigurement, seen on the faces of minor, incidental characters that are often only on screen just fleetingly. At one point, when the mother-in-law and the young widow are about to leave the cave of the black marketeers, having bartered the armour of their latest victim, another old woman and a small child are seen to be on their way in with their own bundle of recovered goods to be sold. The strange old woman has a peculiarly scarred and burned face, which the camera briefly but significantly takes the time to dwell upon; later, Hachi catches a destitute samurai deserter raiding his hut for food, and he too is revealed to be severely disfigured, with strange pustulating growths covering his gaunt face; and of course, there is the ravaged face of the dead solder in the pit who the woman has taken the demon mask from in the first place. Then, when the mother-in-law returns home to the hut after having failed to thwart the desires of the two lovers, and finds that she now cannot remove this demonic mask without first begging her daughter-in-law for her help (having first confessing the entire plot) we are left wondering about the nature of her awful disfigurement, afterwards revealed once the mask is painfully smashed and wrenched from her face. A natural explanation presents itself: perhaps the rain during the typhoon somehow caused a resin used in the making of the mask to react strangely and to take on glue-like properties, and perhaps this in turn caused an adverse allergic reaction, bringing on the skin condition. But then how does that explain the other instances of facial deformity we’ve earlier been presented with? The prospect of disease or plague presents itself, perhaps caught during the old woman’s sojourn inside the pit, for instance. The imagery, also, of course, can’t help but invoke the spectre of Hiroshima, encouraging an allegorical reading of the film in terms of it being another depiction of the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb, with the disfigurements representing the radiation burns of survivors.
Ultimately, “Onibaba” manages to invoke tradition yet is utterly modern and ahead of its time in its frank depiction of horror and sexuality; it’s thoroughly realistic yet mythic and other-worldly in the essence of its imagery and storytelling. Almost sixty years after its first release, though, it remains a stunningly original and memorable example of early Japanese horror, standing quite on its own and setting itself far apart from the plethora of lank-haired ghost girls who eventually came to dominate the character of the Asian supernatural film, and continue to do so even today.
This Masters of Cinema dual-disc edition replaces the previous DVD only release with a lovely new HD transfer which adds inky depths to the deep blacks that are frequently required of the night scenery, and essential fine detail to the depiction of the landscape geography which is so important in setting the tone of the film throughout its run time. The disc includes a full-length audio commentary with director Kaneto Shindô and actors Jitsuko Yoshimura, who played the daughter-in-law, and Kei Satô, who played Hachi. It was recorded in 2001 and is full of fond reminiscences and humour but also plenty of information about the shooting conditions and how certain camera and lighting effects were achieved. It was recorded in Japanese and is translated in subtitles that load automatically once the commentary option is selected. In addition, 40 minutes of 16mm behind the scenes film, shot by Satô during breaks in filming, is included and gives an evocative feel for the atmosphere of the production back in 1964, although it is a shame that there is not a text commentary to set some of the material in context. Director Alex Cox provides an astute six minute introduction to the film, and the original theatrical trailer is here also. The traditional Masters of Cinema booklet comes with the package of course, and this one includes an excellent essay on the film by Doug Cummings; a statement on the film by Kaneto Shindô, examining the origins of the tale in a story that derives from a Shin Buddhist tradition; and a translation of that self same original fable, entitled ‘A Mask with Flesh Scared a Wife’; and finally, an in-depth interview with the director by Joan Mellen is re-printed, specifically relating to the film “Onibaba” and its meaning. This version of the booklet also features bigger reproductions of the black and white production stills, and has more pages than the previous DVD version as a result.
“Onibaba” is a landmark film, not just for Japanese cinema but for the horror film in general, showing how to combine realism with dark fantasy in a poetic blend that continues to inspire awe in anyone who should happen to discover it. This UK Blu-ray edition is the perfect way to make that discovery.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!