Onibaba (鬼婆)

  • 鬼婆 (Onibaba)

7/11/17 (Tues), DVD

This singular 1964 film by Shindo Kaneto about two country women scraping out a life in the turmoil of 14th-century Japan was described to me as a horror flick, but that description doesn’t seem quite right. Horror can be easily forgotten once the thrill is over. That is not the case with this movie. 

A split in the imperial family has led to a brutal battle between rival shoguns and a near-total breakdown of the social order (known as the Nanbokucho Era), with all able-bodied peasants forced into conscription into whatever army has caught them. A 40ish woman and her daughter-in-law deep in the countryside have been left to fend for themselves after their son/husband was taken away. Unable to farm in the present chaos, the nameless duo have taken to murdering passing soldiers and stripping them of their armor and possessions, which they sell to a rough broker for food. They dump the naked bodies unceremoniously into a deep pit.

Suddenly they are visited by their son’s friend Hachi, a loutish peasant who has managed to escape the fighting. He tells them that he and the son had deserted and were attacked while stealing food from farmers, resulting in the son’s death. He intends to lay low until the situation improves. The older woman blames him for the son’s death and warns her daughter-in-law to stay away from him. The girl hardly needs telling, as she is initially disgusted by him.

Hormones being what they are, however, Hachi and the girl start seeing each secretly for some late-night fun. The old woman is aghast at this discovery, hit by a mixture of resentment, jealousy and her own horniness (vividly shown – it involves a tree). She begs the man to stop seeing the girl at least until the war’s end (“I can’t murder without her”) and tries to convince the girl that sex is a mortal sin that will be punished in Buddhist hell. Unable to halt human nature, the old woman is at a loss. Then, after killing a samurai who is disguised in a Noh hannya devil mask (a symbol of jealousy and obsession), she dons the mask herself and, pretending to be a demon, terrifies the girl in the dark on her way to the lover’s hut. The girl races back home and shrivels in fear, thinking she has been cursed.

The old woman, initially satisfied with her work, is horrified to discover that the mask has melted on to her face. She tearfully confesses her deed to the girl, who agrees to help if the woman promises not to interfere further with the relationship. When the mask is removed, however, the girl is shocked to find that it has peeled the woman’s skin off. Convinced her mother-in-law has turned into a monster, she runs away in panic. The woman pursues her, insisting, “I’m a human being! I’m not a demon!” The girl jumps over the pit of corpses, and the woman starts to jump as well when the movie abruptly ends, leaving us to wonder whether she made it across or fell into the abyss.

The film’s first image is the pit, described as “deep and dark since ancient times”. It sits among vast fields of tall susuki reeds that make it impossible for people to see around them – conveniently allowing the women both to hide from the bedlam and to kill unsuspecting soldiers that happen their way. I thought immediately of the beautiful opening scene in Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff, but the reeds here act as a symbol of life against the gaping hole of death. That contrast continues throughout the film. The wretched state of the world has stripped the characters of normal feelings, such as the sheer dispassion with which the two women (the only females in the film) slay total strangers. I was especially shocked when the dog-eat-dog environment devolved into the actual murder of a dog by the hungry women, who are then shown happily munching away on the meat. I became more desensitized to death in the course of the movie given that the women were simply trying to survive – it was either kill or die. The pit with the mounting collection of corpses begin to feel like my own heart.

The one raw feeling here was sex, which the director made no attempt to beautify. Making love would not be the right phrase here, since that implies something beyond the physical. This was an animal-like act with plenty of grunting and screaming and thrashing and moaning, with more nakedness than I thought possible for a mainstream film at that time. Mother Nature really did ensure that the species would propagate regardless of the misery around it. (She didn’t count on the overabundance that seems to be sending modern society in self-annihilation. But that’s another film.) With the ever-present probability that their lives could be snuffed out at any moment, the characters do what they can to get by, and the sexual urge becomes the prime life force. At the film’s close, the girl is running from the mother-in-law, who possibly fell in the pit and died, and toward her lover, who, unbeknownst to her, has been stabbed to death by an intruder. That is, the movie ends on the heartbreaking prospect that the girl is about to find herself utterly alone.

The word onibaba usually signifies an old hag, but here it has a double meaning in the combination of oni (demon) with baba (an offensive word for an old lady). Whether the old lady has truly become a demon is left open, though it should be noted that the movie derives in part from an old Buddhist tale about a woman who is similarly scarred by a demon mask after using it to keep her daughter from praying at a temple. (The mask in the film had earlier been pried by the woman from a samurai’s face with the same horrid stripping of skin, a detail whose significance only becomes clear later.) In any event, her daughter-in-law certainly sees a demon in the woman’s face, which may be all that matters. The director has explained the mask and disfigured faces in terms of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb survivors, but I think it has much deeper connotations. Whatever the moral example of the mask, it is worth recalling that everyone is punished in the end. The world is as impassive as the characters who have to fight for their survival. It is difficult to know what lessons to draw from the story, if any.

The stars – Nobuko Otowa (mother), Jitsuko Yoshimura (daughter-in-law) and Kei Sato (Hachi) – were all first rate, making no attempt to glamorize their roles. Hachi is barbaric from his first appearance in his eating habits and snorting and treatment of the women, and the women speak in gruff language, murder and mutilate their spoil with indifference, and do not hide their nakedness. It is difficult to imagine what these characters would be like in a normal world. War and disarray were the normal state for most of Japan’s history until the 17th century, and the world presented here felt chillingly real.

The director has created a mysterious and claustrophobic world within the tall reeds, an effect intensified by expert cinematography, striking (if somewhat artificial) lighting, and a throbbing musical score by Hikaru Hayashi dominated by taiko drumming. The film starts slowly, including a long-winded background account by Hachi that needs editing, but picks up quickly thereafter to its disturbing end. An unsettling but important film.

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