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Onibaba (Kaneto Shindô, 1964)

March 8, 2013

Onibaba-1

Onibaba is an often harrowing and always interesting examination of how people can be corrupted, and particularly how society can break down during times of war. Part of the gloom of the piece is present in the brutally unsentimental, oft-animalistic actions of its characters. The relentless of the women’s stripping and robbing of their victims particularly recalls the way certain insects act; the elder of the women, meanwhile, often expresses ferociousness akin to that of a woodland mammal. The gloom is also present in the film’s environment, nature turning on the characters with the ruining of their crops by unexpected frost in summer.

Set in a brutal period of Japanese history, in which the country is ravaged by a civil war between rival shogunates, Onibaba opens with two weary samurai travelling. Exhausted from their combat experiences, they are drawn to rest among some high Suzuki grass fields. There they are suddenly ambushed and murdered, not by rival shogun, but by a mother (Noboku Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Kitsuko Yoshimura). Onibaba’s somewhat shocking opening concludes with the samurai’s bodies being thrown into a deep pit within the fields, the women having robbed the deceased of their armour and weapons.

This method of luring, murdering and robbing stray samurai is how the two women earn their living, selling the armour and weapons to an unethical local merchant in their isolated village, in order to buy food to survive. The women are waiting for their son/husband Kichi to return home from the army. One night, a neighbour named Hachi (Kei Satô) returns home from the civil war, having abandoned the army following a losing battle, and informs the pair that Kichi has perished in combat.

Kichi’s mother can’t accept the news, resenting the boorish neighbour for returning home alone. Complications arise when Hachi lusts after Kichi’s young widow, the two eventually committing to a steamy affair. With Kichi no longer around, his mother believes that the potential loss of her daughter-in-law will doom her chances of survival. In trying to dissuade Hachi’s pursuits, she even offers herself for sex, while also trying to implant ideas of sin into the younger woman’s mind. Her efforts are to no apparent avail, but the sudden arrival one night of a mysterious samurai, his face cloaked in a frightening demon mask, presents an opportunity to end the pair’s midnight dalliances. As methods get more drastic in this seedy tale, so too do the extremities of the lessons in instant karma.

Onibaba is an often harrowing and always interesting examination of how people can be corrupted, and particularly how society can break down during times of war. Part of the gloom of the piece is present in the brutally unsentimental, oft-animalistic actions of its characters. The relentless of the women’s stripping and robbing of their victims particularly recalls the way certain insects act; the elder of the women, meanwhile, often expresses ferociousness akin to that of a woodland mammal. The gloom is also present in the film’s environment, nature turning on the characters with the ruining of their crops by unexpected frost in summer.

Driven by primal emotions, also reflected with shrieks present in the film’s musical score, the characters are additionally presented in a primal fashion visually; part of the film’s controversy at the time was related to its frequent nudity and sensuality, with the loss of societal norms reflected in the women frequently wandering around with breasts exposed. Despite the supposed frost that has ruined the crops, Onibaba suggests great heat, with the characters sleeping nude and often covered in palpable sweat.

Outside of the primal explorations, but still related to the film’s visual assets, Onibaba’s most striking aspect is Kiyomi Kuruda’s brilliant deep focus cinematography. The film is shot in monochrome, but its blacks are strangely darker than those of most black and white films. The result is that in the film’s numerous lengthy, steady shots, the gradual reveal of figures from the stark dark of the fields, whether it be the two women looking to strip their prey or a demon-masked figure, have an even more haunting effect thanks to the huge contrasts in light levels between figures and the shadows from which they emerge.

With Onibaba, Shindô – who also wrote the film – explores a capacity for evil within people when one’s survival on even a basic level becomes a struggle, but the rash, unsettling actions performed by the film’s characters are always understandable and free of jarring qualities due to the film’s successful establishment of the characters’ wants and needs. The storytelling style is very theatrical, but there is also this effective blend of realist flourishes – with the harsh, windswept locations in which the film was shot – and overtly stylistic touches. The nightmare qualities of the film’s final act take it into full-blown horror territory, but it remains surprising and actually quite ambiguous until the very end.

The mannerisms of Onibaba’s performances and narrative strokes may prove off-putting to some, but the film’s atmosphere is so unique and intriguing that those willing to immerse themselves into the work’s fever dream qualities may find a hugely rewarding experience. It will, at the very least, make for a hugely memorable viewing.

Full review at Subtitled Online

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