In my view it’s wrong to dismiss Onibaba as a horror film, or even call it a cult classic. It’s one of the all time great movies pure and simple, and certainly the most celebrated by director Kaneto Shindo, who died recently at the age of 100.
In a time of civil war, a woman, Nobuko Otowa, and her daughter-in-law, Jitsuko Yoshimura, live in a small hut in a grass swamp. They live by killing samurai and disposing of their bodies in a deep pit and then selling their armour and weapons.
Society has broken down. Only close family ties hold people together, and as the daughter-in-law’s husband is lost in the war, the two women hunt and kill together and that is their only bond.
The wind-blown, head-high grass swamp is an important character in the movie, painting as it sways the desolation of their lives and hiding and revealing the sexual tensions that erupt when a neighbour named Hachi returns from the civil war and confirms that the young woman’s husband has been killed.
The director has left us with some unforgettably graphic and alluring black and white images that endure forever in the mind.
Nature is desolate but intensely sexual too, mirroring the sexual longing of the returned fighter for the younger woman. The man wants it, but once inflamed the young woman wants it even more, but the older woman fears being left to fend for herself in the harsh realities of the post-war and tries to prevent them from meeting.
Her lust denied she becomes ever more lustful and Onibaba has one of the great depictions of sexual longing in cinema as the girl repeatedly tries to run to meet her lover through the grass swamp in the night, only to be thwarted by the machinations of her fearful, yet manipulative, mother-in-law.
The film is based on a Buddhist parable that involves a mother using her mask to scare her daughter. Enough to say that the real themes in the movie are sex and death, and both of these are perilous black holes into which we fall if we’re driven by blind fear or naked lust. Here the mask works as a metaphor for the disfigured faces of the survivors of Hiroshima. Another post-war horror.
The jazz infused Japanese drumbeats of the soundtrack are as intense, vibrant and driven as the visuals – but in the end all is dark. Yet in spite of all the gloom and despair the director has left us with some unforgettably graphic and alluring black and white images that last forever in the mind.
See Onibaba whenever you can.