by Kaneto Shindo, 1964, 103 mins, starring Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Sato, Jukichi Uno and Taiji Tonoyama.
As the film starts, the first shot you see is of grass, and you will have to get used to this, as you will see a lot of waving grasses throughout. In the middle of the frame is a dark hole in the ground. The kanji character for "hole" appears. then the words - "deep and dark - its darkness has lasted since ancient times." Music, a mixture of taiko drums and modern atonal jazz begins. Right from the start, the audience know that they are in for an unsettling film experience. Through the long grass come a pair of fleeing infantrymen, pursued by samurai on horseback. Having found what they think is a place of refuge, they collapse, exhausted, in a hiding place in the grass. As quick as a flash, through the vertical blades of the long grass comes the horizontal blade of a polearm which swiftly despatches both men.
Gingerly, two women, an older one and a younger one, emerge from the grass. They prod, then kick the prone corpses, strip them of their armour and valuables, and then toss their corpses down the hole in the earth we saw at the beginning of the film. They then return to the small hut in which they live, and eat and drink greedily as anyone would after a hard day's work - for their murderous activity is just that - routine. The next day they take their spoils to Ushi, the local black marketeer, to trade for bags of millet (there is no rice in this starved country). Ushi offers to throw in another bag of millet if the older woman will allow him to have sex with her, but she refuses with a disdainful sneer.
This is how two women scrape an existence in a time of anarchy in Japanese history. Men seem to be marginal to their lives, and exist only as potential threats, mercantilist traders, or potential prey. Any kind of society seems to have broken down, leaving people to live on their wits, and scrape a living in a literally marginal existence, among the rushes, on the margin between two elements - land and river. With men away fighting, and no attempts at agricultural work being made, the modus vivendi for these women is to murder passing soldiers fleeing from the conflict, plunder their possessions and throw their bodies down the enigmatic hole we saw in one of the first shots of the film.
It is into this harsh existence that a man strays... swimming across the river, with his clothes on the end of a fishing spear, he walks straight into the women's hut and demands food. The old woman exclaims "Hachi," his name, showing that they both know him. Hachi then tells his story - it seems he is a local peasant who went to the war with the young woman's husband, who was killed, leaving Hachi to return. The old woman looks sceptical of this tale, but there is obviously no way in which the story can be checked. In the meantime, Hachi begins to weave his life into the lives of the two women, firstly by offering food to the young woman, then along with the women partaking in the brutal river-side murder of two fugitive samurai, and then slowly, Hachi and the young woman fall in love, or rather, lust. The young woman starts to leave the hut at night and run through the dark, in the long grass, for night-time assignations with her new lover, and the old woman becomes jealous of this, leading to an extraordinary scene where in a fit of frustrated sexuality she takes it out on a nearby tree... She then threatens her daughter in law with stories of adulterers being damned to hell, but the young woman does not accept these. And then a mysterious samurai lord appears wearing a sinister demon-Noh mask, asking the way to Kyoto. The mask gives the old woman a new idea for how to stop the burgeoning relationship between Hachi and her daughter in law...
Onibaba, directed and wiritten by Shindou Kaneto is a classic black and white film from 1964 which has long been an established art house favourite in the West. Once thought to be ground breaking in its portrayal of sexuality and nudity, at least in the West, that aspect of the film looks tame now, and the modern viewer can relish the most delicious aspect of the film: the unsettling ghost story with the powerful moral lesson of a folk tale, portrayed in the most lavishly well composed and photographed manner that reminds one of a skilfully drawn manga. Some of the shots are extremely avant garde and startling in terms of composition, so much so that virtually any frame in the film could grace the wall of a gallery of modern photography, or indeed the wall of a aesthete's house.
The film is rich in symbolism, much of this provided by the two other nameless characters in the film, the grass, and the hole. The hole is a constant feature in the film, and is as much a brooding presence as the old house above the Bates Motel in Psycho, or Hill House in The Haunting. At first the hole seems to be solely a danger for men, somehow representing a fear of women. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that the hole represents a wider danger for humanity. At various times, people nearly fall into the hole - most notably Hachi, who teeters on the brink of it momentarily, having just been running through the grass in an ecstacy of lust for the younger woman. Various other people fall into it - mostly the unfortunate soldiers who have become the victims of the two predatory women. The hole represents some nemesis or catastrophe that is constantly there for those who are prey to the baser instincts of Man, in the absence of civilisation. The chaotically flowing grass is the very element that the film exists in: it is as ubiquitous for the main characters as the sea is for fish. The grasses flow chaotically this way and that, seeming to represent a wider chaos in nature.
The final shocking resolution of the film comes like the end of a fairy tale. There is a sense of the Brothers Grimm (the original scary versions of those tales) about the fate awaiting the old woman. Indeed the story comes across very much as a traditional Japanese kaidan, or ghost story, and that adds to the general sense of phantasmagoria of the film. This is a powerful little morality tale, with a neat and very rich piece of symbolism based on using a mask as a central conceit.
So, is the film good? You bet! There are some problems with it. As the film was made in the swinging sixties, there is quite a bit of sex in it - the sexual side of the three main characters is dealt with in some depth, including the infamous "tree hugging" scene. These scenes tend to contribute some longeurs to the film. However, Onibaba is a sumptuous artistic and emotional experience. Like the best Japanese films, particularly the ghost stories and horror films, it transports you into a different world. The overall sense of unease and phantasmagoria in the film will make David Lynch green-eyed with envy. It combines the latest avant garde techniques of film making and cinematography, with the most Japanese ethos and story-telling, and a truly Macbethian way in which the most hideous and poetic of fates are brought about by the moast banal of means.
Oh yes, I forgot to say - "Onibaba" means "demon old woman." The best English translation I could think of would be "the hag." In the final analysis, Onibaba is a tragedy of sexual politics gone horribly wrong.
Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment value: 9/10
Scare Factor: 5/10 - not particularly scary, apart from a shock ending, but for sheer unease, this film is perfect Lynch
Scary demon Noh masks with a terrible hidden curse: 1 (every home should have one)
Litres of tomato ketchup: it's a black and white film... a little bit of chocolate sauce?
*** Essential ***
NB: The Snowblood Apple overlay logo does NOT appear on the full-size version.
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2005
http://www.criterionco.com/asp/release.asp?id=226 - Criterion have the rights for the US release, and this is their official page with synopsis, essays, etc
http://www.foutz.net/movies/onibaba.shtml - Scott Foutz with a comprehensive review as ever
http://www.tohokingdom.com/web_pages/dvd/onibaba_criterion.htm - Toho Kingdom specialises in movies made by the Toho Corporation, and do a very thorough job on this release. It's well worth looking round the rest of the site too.
http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/drama/onibaba/onibaba.html - KFC Cinema review
http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content.php?contentid=56153 - Super-detailed review of the entire DVD package