Thursday, June 13, 2013

Onibaba (1964)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

So a thing about my summer job is that we have Japanese movies showing without sound on a tv, so I'm like always in the mood to watch Japanese movies now. I bumped Onibaba up my netflix queue since it fulfilled those needs plus it's a horror movie I've been meaning to see for a while. Set during a civil war in the fourteenth century, the film delves into the lives of those left behind when all able-bodied men were drafted into feudal armies. A mother (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have taken to slaughtering wayward soldiers who tread through their wetland community's tall grasses, and selling off their armor and weaponry in exchange for food. They are hardened and cold-hearted, but they get by together. When male neighbor Hachi (Kei Satô) returns from the front claiming their man is dead, their dynamic gradually shifts. Hachi aims to seduce the daughter, and she is amenable to re-awakening her own sexual pursuits and perhaps gaining some independence from her overbearing mother-in-law. Desperate to hold on to her one remaining family member, the mother dons a dead samurai's demon mask in an effort to frighten the girl away from Hachi.

Though billed as a horror movie and advertised with horrific demon imagery, Onibaba isn't so much about the supernatural. It focuses more on the horrors of wartime scarcity and despair, of the desperation suffered by soldiers and citizens alike. The unnamed mother and daughter are introduced as vicious killers, silently and systematically attacking unsuspecting soldiers and dragging their stripped-down bodies to a mysterious bottomless pit. They hunt, they kill, they steal, and then they gorge themselves animalistically on a pot of rice before collapsing in a shared bed within their straw hut, sweaty and exhausted from their wordless escapade. Like, what a fucking fantastic opening. I couldn't even deal with all the feral misandry being thrown at me. In 1964! And then the rest of the movie is basically an exploration of the sexual and emotional needs of these women and how they are grasping wildly for self-sustenance and self-realization.

Writer/director Kaneto Shindô takes his time building up to the all-out scares, quietly establishing an eerie, unknowable setting in the marshlands, with tall waving grasses that seem to knowingly observe the actions of the human players. The jazz/taiko drum combination score adds to the uncanny feel of the place, as does the use of slow-motion and shot repetition. It's a gorgeous film visually, eventually employing memorably creepy imagery that settles in perfectly with the already-unsettling locations. What really makes Onibaba scary is how universal it felt despite its very Japanese origins and iconography. These women could exist in any war-torn country, abandoned by their man and scrounging for survival. Their codependent relationship grown out of need is understandable, just exaggerated through an added supernatural element.

Ok, it's a horror movie, sure, but also... not really? It excels as a character study, with Nobuko Otowa standing out especially as the mother. Her hard, cold stare and brazen sexuality are matched only by her honest affection for her daughter-in-law, whose maturation into womanhood pulls at their frayed familial bond. I loved how open and non-judgmental the film is about female sexuality, like these ladies want to have sex and who gives a damn? The mother tries to shame her daughter-in-law, but that was only to hold on to her, not out of any actual puritan feelings about sex. Onibaba was certainly not what I expected, but I think that made it better. An eerie, compelling tale of desperate women and the lengths they'll go to for fulfillment, even when surrounded by death and destruction.


Pair This Movie With: I'm sure there are a lot of thematically similar movies that I'm just not familiar with, so you can probably do your own thing. But I thought of The Exorcist since Friedkin drew some of his own demonic imagery from this movie.


  1. Brilliant review as usual.

    I've been after that damn score for years. Wish somebody would release it.