Of all the mid-60’s Japanese cinema I watch, Onibaba holds a special place. On a very basic level, I have never seen a movie like this. It is visceral, beautiful and terrifying.
Made by the great Kaneto Shindo (who passed away last year at age 100!) who directed over 45 movies and wrote more than 200 scripts. His films are all over the map, but he did make two atmospheric *horror* films. Kurenko (1968), made 4 years after Onibaba
focuses more on the paranormal than the human. It’s a great movie, but only reinforces the singularity of Onibaba.
Onibaba (which is based on an old Buddhist parable) centers around an old woman and her daughter-in-law. Their very existence is both desperate and meager. Set in the Warring States (Sengoku) period, the two women kill any samurai unlucky enough to wander into the high susuki grass they call home. They sell the armor for grain and
throw the bodies into a metaphorically deep and real hole. Things get complicated when deserter soilder Hachi, shows up and develops a very primal lust for the younger of the two. Then the demon mask comes into play…….
What I find so unique about Onibaba’s plot is the simplicity of it. This was a CRAPPY time to live in. These characters are providing for very basic needs. They must eat, (and apparently can’t grow anything) so they kill and sell the weapons and armor. When Hachi comes into the picture, his basic need is sex manifested in primal desire. If the mother loses the girl, she “can’t kill without her“.
The real star of Onibaba is the susuki grass. It constantly appears in different lights, weather and moods. Though the film does feature a minimalist free-form score of kyoto drums, whoops and whines (by Hikaru Hayashi), the main sound that I remember is the grass swaying. While this sound is normally associated with pastoral or summer scenes, here it also invokes mayhem and dread. The location of Onibaba is the grass, it punctuates scenes, shelters the characters and sits idly by as humans run amok. Once the demon mask enters the picture the tone shifts rapidly, as the nature of humanity begins to truly unravel.
Most films have some kind of recognizable connective tissue. Even if it’s a foreign film, there is usually some human element that a viewer can relate to, an emotion, or situation that is familiar enough to draw the viewer in. I find these elements few and far between in Onibaba. The time period, location, and situational elements are unfamiliar to me, to say the least. This bit of displacement may be what makes me watch Onibaba repeatedly. All I know is that it’s a unique human situation that translates into a completely singular movie.