Kaneto Shindo, “Onibaba” (1964)
An old Japanese Buddhist tale of a woman who uses a mask to frighten her daughter from visiting a temple becomes in Kaneto Shindo’s hands a psychological study of a post-apocalyptic society in which people crushed by warfare and poverty exist as best as they can but are undone by the stresses of day-to-day living and the repressed emotions and tensions generated which can explode in unexpected ways. The film is set in mediaeval Japan during a period of civil war and widespread destruction; the capital Kyoto has been set ablaze and two rival Emperors are vying for power and control. Peasants have been recruited by daimyo to fight for either Emperor or the Ashikaga shogun family. Two women, the mother (Nobuko Otawa) of one such peasant and his young wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have fled into swampy countryside where, hidden by tall seas of grass, they eke out a living killing and robbing lone samurai and selling their armour and swords to a merchant who pays them in bags of millet.
One day, a soldier peasant, Hachi (Kei Sato), returns from the wars: the mother immediately plies him with questions about her son Kichi and Hachi replies that he is dead. Hachi sets up his hut not far from where the mother and daughter-in-law live and eventually he seduces the daughter-in-law and invites her to live with him. The mother, dependent on her daughter-in-law to help in killing samurai, offers herself to Hachi once she realises what is going on but Hachi is not interested. The mother tries to prevent the younger woman from visiting Hachi every night but her efforts exhaust her.
One night while the daughter-in-law is out with Hachi, the mother meets a lost samurai (Jukichi Uno) who wears a demon mask. The samurai tells the mother the mask is necessary as he has a beautiful face that is not for peasants to see. The samurai forces the mother on pain of death to lead him out of the swamps but she tricks him into falling down a large hole where the women usually lure their victims. Once she is sure that he is dead, the mother descends into the hole to retrieve his armour and swords, and with effort takes the mask off his face. She sees that the samurai is severely disfigured.
The demon mask gives the mother an idea of how to control her wayward daughter-in-law and for the first few times she succeeds in stopping the girl from visiting Hachi by putting the fear of demons into her. Unfortunately an unexpected rainstorm enables the girl to escape and creates another problem for the mother with the mask …
The film may be very slow for some viewers but the pace helps to build up unbearable tension, especially unbearable sexual tension, gradually and relentlessly. The main actors do a fine job in expressing their fears of isolation and loneliness, and their need for connection and love, through their expressions, actions and dialogue, minimal though these are. The mother’s sexual frustrations and jealousy lead her to deny her daughter-in-law the chance of fulfillment with Hachi, even though he is a drunk and a sleaze, and these emotions transform the older woman into the demon hag of the film’s title. The film’s swampland setting, dominated by restless waving forests of susuki grass, and with its lone tree and the vagina-like hole that promises death to high-born samurai but gives life to the peasant women, reflects the sexual frustrations of its main characters and becomes a significant character in its own right. The music soundtrack which ranges from improvised jazz bebop to ritual drumming adds to the feeling of unease and tension.
Some audiences may be perturbed by the macabre grand-guignol climax which turns the film into uncomfortable comedy, completely at odds with its otherwise realist themes. The film’s conclusion comes quickly and is deliberately left open-ended. The one thing we can be sure of is that chaos will follow: the vagina-like hole, which had received male victims of wealth and status, might now receive an impoverished female victim and what cosmic disruption might now be caused by a new imbalance in nature can only be guessed at.
The film derives its impact and horror from the characters’ psychology, the stresses, inner conflicts and tensions they experience and the actions that result with their devastating consequences. Stunning black-and-white cinematography, an arch music soundtrack and a minimal style that throws emphasis on character development help turn a bare-bones story into an unforgettable work of art. Few other films showing how a debased society at war and the pressures of poverty and uncertainty it creates can lead to people treating one another in the most dreadful ways can match “Onibaba” for drama and impact.