Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bitch’s Brew: a look at Onibaba

Onibaba (1964)
Written and directed by Kaneto Shindo
Music by Hikaru Hayashi and Tetsuya Ohashi
Cinematography by Kiyomi Kuroda
Editing by Toshio Enoki
103 minutes

The daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura, at left and above, also in the excellent Pigs & Battleships) is quite fetching; something about the slight puffiness under her eyes makes her so beautiful and dangerous to me (and she also looks a little like Bjork).

Highly recommended
Onibaba is an intense film about humanity at its most raw--almost feral--state.

Superb B&W cinematography, assured direction,
a solid script and a trio of fearless performances combine effortlessly to make this semi-supernatural tale so memorable.

[And, to be honest, I’m one of those knuckleheads who have a positive Pavlovian reaction towards crisp B&W cinematography and borderline spooky/unique storylines: They always remind me of Rod Serling’s classic The Twilight Zone; in my head, both Onibaba and, say, King Vidor’s The Fountainhead are both thought of as missing extended morality-tale TZ episodes.]

Set in a marsh with high grass, Onibaba’s characters are almost always swallowed by their surroundings:
nature has gobbled them up---and they are all animals.

I love the opening titles, superimposed against the leaves of the reeds shaking in the wind , like the windy bushes in Grizzly Man (another example of man lost in nature) while the proto-John Zorn-madness-jazz blares on the soundtrack, setting a stark, yet overwhelming mood. Madness is in the air.

Onibaba is set in
13th or 14th Century feudal Japan, during a time of major civil war, an old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) survive by ambushing stray or wounded samurai warriors (whose bodies are unceremoniously dumped into a deep, dark pit in a field of high reeds), and then selling the dead men’s swords and armor.

The women are desperately hoping for the return of their son/husband, but Hachi (Kei Sato), a returning neighbor, tells them the man they’re waiting for has been killed in battle (both men had been press-ganged into joining an army).

The Old Woman knows her hold over the young woman is now much more tenuous than it was before--and having a guy around screws up the once-placid sexual dynamics: it’s a hot summer, and everyone’s feeling horny.

The young woman drifts further and further away from the Old Woman’s hold, and begins a series of assignations with Hachi, who asks her to live with him now that she’s a widow.

One night, the Old Woman is alone and a lost samurai general--wearing a fierce demon mask--takes her hostage, demanding she lead him back to the road to Kyoto.

The samurai claims to wear the mask because he is so beautiful, he cannot afford to have his face scarred in combat.

But after the Old Woman tricks him into falling into the deep pit, she unmasks the samurai, finding a scarred and awful face. (I wasn’t sure if he was a burn victim or a leper. Director Shindo says he patterned the dead warrior's scars on the faces of Hiroshima victims.)

She takes the dead warrior’s possessions, but doesn’t sell the mask.

Instead, she puts it on and waits in the reeds to frighten the young woman when she’s sneaking off to Hachi’s place.

The Old Woman starts to get the younger one back under her thrall, but things fall apart when, after chasing the girl in the rain, the Old Woman can’t get the mask off.

After pleading and begging her daughter-in-law, the Old Woman agrees to the young one’s demands of obsequiousness, and the young one, not without glee, smashes the mask again and again, painfully breaking it apart: revealing the Old Woman’s face now as scarred and horrible as the dead samurai warrior’s.

The girl is horrified and runs away, the Old Woman after her, begging to believe that she’s still human, not a demon.

The girl runs towards the pit, leaps over it, keeps running.
The Old Woman, screaming, “I’m a human being! I’m a human being!” runs at the pit, leaps---then freeze frame and blackout.

Onibaba is based on a Buddhist parable, but is more psychological horror, akin to E.A. Poe’s stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart”---
There are no genuine “supernatural” elements to the film, but there is a focus on bitter, twisted people doing selfish and nasty things—living in a state of denial and delusion.
Onibaba is like Satre’s No Exit, where it takes three people to ruin the pleasant fantasies we blind ourselves with (“hell is other people”).

Moody and erotic, the flick has a never-ending aura of dread, but is beautiful to look at—
Meanwhile, the director uses sound very effectively: the slicing, rustling of the reeds in the wind, the cicadas, the pigeons’ malevolent cooing.

I like that the film is so honest about its characters’ sexual desires—it’s some of the best examples of sexual frustration on film, as characters scratch, moan and throw themselves at the earth or rub against trees chasing some form of relief.

Watching Onibaba again, I was reminded of The Night of the Hunter and Witchfinder General, as well Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood’s underrated and excellent The Beguiled, where there is enough of an atmosphere of FEAR that these movies (and Onibaba) don’t necessarily need the supernatural (making them crossovers between “art” and “genre” flicks).

The movie has staying power;
In fact, Onibaba could be competently remade for U.S. audiences by resetting it in the American South during the Civil War--
Because it’s a war movie where the war isn’t seen; we only experience the pain and deprivations of unfortunate, poor civilians.

But survival is the ultimate goal; and crimes of all sorts have happened:
Hachi has even killed a priest to wear his vestments to escape being returned to the front.

“You caused others to die. You deserve this punishment,” the old woman says to the dying masked samurai, forgetting that she’s killed a lot, too.
She’s no innocent, even commenting at the sight of a battle on the horizon, “More prey coming our way.”

“As if the earth
had been turned upside-down,”
someone says about the war-wracked state of Japan--
at one point, a character notes that there are now two emperors,
something just plain crazy considering how venerated the Chrysanthemum Throne is there.

But the film is also critical of the older generation that forces its children to do its bidding and blindly obey, even using religion to con the young--

A friend born and raised in Japan told me that “onibaba” also means “bitch,” as in the derogatory term, not a female dog, and that is significant: The Old Woman IS a bitch, a mean-spirited, spiteful hag, and her actions, despite her poor circumstances—you’d like to feel sympathy for her—but she works hard so you don’t: she’s selfish and nasty.
One could see her son not returning for the war just to avoid her.

According to TCM:
- “The
in the
William Friedkin
to use a similar design
for the makeup in
subliminal shots of a
white-faced demon in Exorcist, The (1973).”

This entry is part of a blogathon/block party sponsored by the fab Final Girl and her Final Girl Film Club—check her out!


  1. Great movie, great review. I have nothing to add. 私は愚かです。

  2. You're not stupid. あなたは明るく、特別な雪の結晶です。