Onibaba (1964) movie poster

(1964) director Kaneto Shindô
viewed: 11/25/10

Onibaba was a left-over from my Halloween cavalcade of horror films that I’d queued up for the holiday.  And like all Halloweens, there are always left-overs, and with another film by Kaneto Shindô, Kuroneko, playing at the Castro the next day, it seemed a very apropos time to stick it in the DVD player.

Based on a Buddhist parable, ancient folklore, the story is set in an ancient time, during a period warring states in which anarchy and chaos has come to rule the day.  An older woman and her daughter-in-law cobble a life together by murdering bypassing roving samurai who have escaped from the war.  They kill them for their armor and weapons and sell it for meal.   When a formerly conscripted neighbor returns to their doorstep, starving, he turns out to be a friend of the older woman’s son, the younger woman’s husband, and claims the son has been slain by farmers who caught them stealing, and that he is the only one to have escaped.  While both women grieve, the man quickly sets his goals on the younger woman, lusting heartily for her and making his desires clear.

Shindô’s film, while taking an ancient tale, views it through a very contemporary lens, contemporary for 1964, the year the film was made.   The women wear thin robes, and are often topless.  Not in leering sexuality, but in rough, gritty, sweaty, lusty naturality.  The film is rife with the basest and most basic aspects of human need: food, shelter, life, sex.  And set among the the tall susuki grass blades that tower like an ever-undulating forest, this basic human drama plays out.

With murder being the means of survival, the film is full of menace and threat.  But what unfolds, the fear that the mother-in-law has of being abandoned by the younger woman, without whom she would be alone and potentially incapable of sustaining herself, gives way to her trying to fool the young woman into fearing the gods.  She instills her with stories of sin and hell, and finally, when the opportunity arises, gains the mask of a devil to give form to her frightening tales.

It’s a beautifully shot, wildly lusty telling of a story that is quite simple at its heart, but Shindô uses his material well, the natural landscape and sounds, the taiko drums, building a vision of the raw fears and needs of humanity when the world has turned awry.

While the film’s story is based in legend, and Shindô infuses it with a 1960’s open mentality about sexuality, the film also reflects the times in other ways.  I’m not as familiar with Japanese culture of the 1960’s, how much chaos and social change played into the daily life, but the war-torn Japan of the film seems to reflect a sense of anarchy perhaps quite metaphorical for the times in which it was made.

Whatever the case, it’s an excellent film.  And what turned out to be a good pairing with Kuroneko, which I did see the following day.

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