That is until Ushi, a former resident, suddenly shows up. Escaped from battle, his arrival begins a sudden and dramatic change in the relationship between the two women. Now jealousy, betrayals, lust, anger, gluttony, and revenge come calling. The movie showcases many negative facets of war. The pacing of the movie speeds up as it nears its end, as the story lines reach their conclusions. No sweeping landscapes like Kurosawa. The tall grass that dominates the area shelters and hides the people, but also keeps the focus entirely on their own lives.
Isolation and claustrophobia are brilliantly and beautifully created by the setting - unending fields of grass rising well over head height - which creates a rich, lush environment which the characters do not seem able to (or even desire to) escape.
If you ever have the opportunity, treat yourself to seeing this movie on film; it's gorgeous.
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.