Original release: November 21st, 1964
Running time: 103 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Writer and director: Kaneto Shindo
Cast: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Sato
Onibaba was the first film I saw from director Kaneto Shindo a few years ago when it was screened at university as part of my Japanese horror class. Having seen well-known J-horror films like Ringu, Ju-on: The Grudge and Dark Water, this was different from what I’d expected.
While there’s undoubtedly an aspect of the film that qualifies as horror, I found it hard to put Onibaba into the genre box.
I remember the lecturer explaining what the Japanese word “hibakusha” meant and that Onibaba brings the concept into its narrative in a symbolic way. This was the first time I heard in detail about the surviving victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Learning of how these victims became social outcasts due the permanent injuries they suffered from the attacks illuminated my understanding of Kaneto Shindo’s film and helped me to think more about war in its context.
The exact time of Onibaba’s plot is not indicated, but the film is a jidaigeki that most likely takes place in the 14th century around the turbulent era of civil wars that ended the Kamakura period in feudal Japan.
The entire story plays out in a suzuki grass swamp revolving around a woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) who are forced to find cruel ways of surviving in a world stricken by war. They attack and kill stray and injured samurai in order to sell their weapons and clothing.
Although the film doesn’t have any direct connection with World War II, the circumstances in Onibaba are practically identical to a post-World War II Japan. Food is scarce, every day is yet another fight for survival and people are beginning to have little respect for the elite who started the war.
This lack of respect is more than obvious when we see the two women slaughtering the elite samurai warriors. These noble military men are not merely killed but also undressed; their weapons, armour and clothing are taken from them in death along with their dignity.
With all the men at war, the two women live this violent and secretive life when their neighbour Hachi (Kei Sato) suddenly returns. He escaped from the war and brings bad news; he tells the woman that her son (and husband to the daughter-in-law) was killed in battle. It takes very little time for Hachi to figure out that the two women put food on the table by killing samurai – and finds no problem with this whatsoever.
He lusts after the daughter-in-law and although he is quite an unpleasant person, he is the only man around so she soon settles for him. They start having an affair secretly because the mother-in-law feels that Hachi is threatening her livelihood as she would no longer be able to kill without help.
Not long before the mother-in-law cooks up a plan to break up the relationship. When she comes across with a lost samurai with a frightening demon mask, she tricks him into a deadly fall and steals his mask. Their conversation reveals much of her anger towards the elite, she speaks about so many people dying in vain and when the samurai eventually plunges to his death, the woman tells him: “It serves you right. Men like you killed my son.”
She doesn’t seem to care which side the samurai was fighting on; the woman has no stake in the war either way and she regards all participants as her enemies. When she forces the mask off of the dead man, a badly disfigured face is revealed underneath; the first visual reminder of the post-World War II ‘hibakusha’.
She has obtained the demon mask, so the woman will become just another participant in the war she despises. In the context of the film’s symbolism, when she decides to use the mask to accomplish her own selfish goals, she becomes no better than the elite. After playing on her daughter-in-law’s fears of ghosts and demons by telling her that Buddha exacts severe punishment for sex outside marriage, she intercepts her dressed as a demon while the young woman is on her way to Hachi’s hut at night.
We soon realise that it is the mask itself that causes the disfigurement that’s so similar to that of the surviving victims of the atomic bomb attacks. The mask is quite fascinating as a representation of war – one needs to put it on willingly, but it does not come off without leaving the human face unrecognisably scarred.
Shindo using World War II symbolism in a period film where the Japanese were fighting each other is also very telling of the filmmaker’s meaning. Onibaba very blatantly chooses not to take sides in the conflict; instead it criticises a state of mind that takes a nation into a pro-longed war that makes no sense to the majority of the population.
There is plenty of blame to go around in the film, but this has nothing to do with sides as Shindo makes it clear that a small number of aristocrats use the masses to fight each other because of trivial disagreements. Hachi’s account of his experiences is quite shocking; he had fought on both sides of the conflict depending on who captured him and his men.
He was a soldier who had no idea why he was fighting. Hachi’s backstory is the most straightforward anti-war message in Onibaba while we see how these circumstances demoralise peasants and farmers who would otherwise live a peaceful life of trading and growing food.
As British film director Alex Cox said of the film, Onibaba is also a movie of great commercial appeal with a strong story that’s very approachable. Visually, it’s unforgettable; the suzuki grass swamp is a wonderfully mysterious location for a bleak story of serial killing and the following horror with the haunting of a demon.
Much of Onibaba plays out at night and Kaneto Shindo uses light with incredible skill that looks even better in black and white. Scenes are often set up in a way that the actor only needs to take one step to become completely invisible to us. This makes it an unmissable film for those looking for gems in the world of Japanese cinema.
While it keeps any casual movie-goer entertained with its story and stunning visuals, film students like I was when watching the film few years ago will find a lot to unpack in the film’s rich symbolism and its dealing with war.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.