I Like Horror Movies
I probably would have had more of an idea what to expect from this movie if I knew more Japanese folklore. I wouldn't say I really speak Japanese, but I know a handful of words, and the title of today's movie wasn't one of them. The cover of the box should have been an indicator, but it doesn't give any specific detail about what kind of creature we're dealing with. What I do know about Japanese folklore includes the fact that the Japanese have about as many variants of spirits and demons and so forth as the Irish. (And spelling in Japanese is a lot easier!) According to Wikipedia, the [i]onibaba[/i] is a female demon who lives on the flesh of passers-by--or, in some versions, the blood of the unborn. The story is that typical Japanese combination of eerie and depressing, and I won't go into it here. It makes me want to read some books of Japanese stories, but at the same time, I'm a little hesitant.
It is the fourteenth century, and the men have gone off to war. An old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and a young woman (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live alone together by a river. Their hut and the river and everything around is surrounded by acres of high reeds. The women make a living killing samurai who have gotten lost in the reeds and selling their possessions to Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama), who gives them millet in exchange. One day, their neighbour, Hachi (Kei Sat˘), comes home. When he left, it was with the old woman's son, Kichi, who was the young woman's husband. However, Hachi says that they were in a great battle and fled the army. They were looting farmhouses, trying to find food to survive on, when a group of farmers killed Kichi. Hachi joins the women for some of their money-earning activity, but the old woman is not pleased that he is back. She believes that the young woman will leave her alone, and she will not survive. One night, she kills a lost samurai (Jűkichi Uno) and steals the mask he was wearing to try to scare the young woman into submission.
What depressed me about my brief research--and what Japanese audiences were more likely to know--was that this was just the start of fifty years of fighting. Already, the farmers have fled and famine is upon the land. The only men the two women see are soldiers and bandits. The fighting has just started, and it's going to continue for a long time. Things are bad, and they're only going to get worse. Making a living at stealing the possessions of the dead can only work so well and for so long. Already, Ushi is having a hard time finding enough millet to keep business going. Someone has to tend the fields, and in civil war, it's hard to get people to do that. The armies take the farmers for soldiers, and they fight battles all over the fields. The men are dead or off at war, and the women must take on all the work. Worse, there is no law, and women are vulnerable when soldiers come through with no one to stop them from doing as they please.
Neither woman has a name; neither woman had a name in the screenplay, even. On IMDb, they are listed as "Kichi's Mother" and "Kichi's wife." And up until Hachi returns, that is how they define themselves to each other. However, with the news that Kichi is dead comes the awareness that the women must find new identities. The young woman would be perfectly happy marrying Hachi, but there is no place there for the old woman. While the old woman acts like the young woman's mother and in many ways considers herself as such, she isn't. There is no reason to assume that Hachi would be willing to make a place for a new wife's first husband's mother. I think, had things gone differently, he would have rather taken both women in than see the old woman starve, but none of them really talked about it. Everyone was sneaking around behind everyone else's back in one way or another, and that's no way to get anything accomplished.
The old woman insists that it can only be lust that would call up a demon, and that clearly, she and the young woman are doing nothing wrong with how they earn a living. This is ridiculous. I'm not sure they have a whole lot of choice, but that doesn't mean it's right, either. The masked samurai quite possibly would have killed the old woman if she hadn't killed him first, but they actually sneak up on various other men, easy enough to do in the reeds. Hardly anyone would know that they were there, and they probably still would have gotten some things to sell. After all, we see a fight or two nearby between men who don't care about anything but the war. One of them probably would have died even without the women's help. It isn't as much, but in the long run, how much market will there be? We see Hachi catch a fish, and that seems to be the only work anyone in the movie goes through to produce their own food. Though I don't know what kind of crops they could grow around there at that.
This is considered to be Kaneto Shindo's masterpiece, but since I haven't seen anything else by him it would be unfair for me to say that. However, I can say that everything about this film is amazing. The stark black and white photography is stunning, and watching the wind blow through the fields of susuki is nothing short of orgasmic (haha, get it?). From a filmmaking standpoint, black and white film is obviously cheaper, but, in all honesty, I think this film would have been a mess if it was shot in color. I feel that it would loose the raw emotion that it contains. The characters in this film are driven by basic human instincts: survival and reproduction. And is there a better way to show human beings at their fundamentals than by shooting it in an absence of color? It's a brilliant way to show mankind's primitivity.
The character development builds even more when a friend of the mother's son returns home . . . without her son. He tells of a tragic tale oh how they were prisoners of war and how during an attack the son was slain while the friend escaped. Now, this friend is perhaps the seediest man alive, but there's no way to tell if he's telling the truth or not. However, judging from the theme of human behavior I can only assume that he either turned on him or left him to die so he could save his own hide. The mother becomes infuriated with him for that fact and soon begins to loose her cool as her daughter-in-law starts to fall for him. Jealousy becomes a big issue as the mother needs her daughter-in-law to help her survive, but a deeper desire for sexual activity erupts into nothing as the young man declines the mother's invitation for a nice fuck and has to sit idly by while her daughter-in-law becomes ever so promiscuous with him.
Sexual pleasure is a big theme here. The director has stated that he purposely filmed the swaying susuki field to convey a sense of eroticism, depending on the character's mood (an instance being the daughter-in-law running to her lover as the grass is blowing frantically around her). We can also see this since whenever the two woman go to bed they sleep topless, due to the extreme heat which makes them sweat. The jealous mother tries to put an end to this since she has no way of relieving her own sexual repression (due to the lack of a lover and also old age). She has no way to escape this feeling, which many people could connect to the gaping pit that lies near their hut. She goes about this by donning one of the most horrifying masks (which could even be labeled as a precursor to the mask with nails seen in Mario Bava's Black Sunday) to scare the living shit out her daughter-in-law by pretending to be a demon and accusing her of sinning.
The frenzied score only helps to heighten the intensity of the film, as well as keeping the viewer on edge. Anyone who is interested in this film should pick up the Criterion Collection DVD since it contains a nice interview with the director, as well as a diesel booklet with some really good essays to mull over in your mind. Onibaba is a gemstone in Asian cinema that everyone should see.