Written and Directed by: Kaneto ShindŰ
Starring: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura and Kei SatŰ
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I'm not a demon! I'm a human being!"
Onibaba feels like one of those quietly scary fairy tales that a parent might tell their child to warn them against certain behavior. You know the sort--the little, compact morality plays that are thematically underpinned by a simple black and white message: do something bad, and something bad will happen to you in return. That kind of karmic retribution is at the center of the film, which is basically a story of a mother and a daughter of sorts; eventually, however, the two eventually see a role reversal, which shifts the paradigm and explores the nature of fear, power, and control among humanity.
Adapted from an ancient Buddhist fable, itís actually centered around a woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura). Living together in the midst of a dynastic war, they survive by killing unsuspecting samurai and trading in their weapons and armor in exchange for goods. One day, their neighbor, Hachi (Kei Sato), returns from the war alone, as the womanís son/daughter-in-lawís husband perished. Bitter over these events, the mother is resentful, and even more so when Hachi begins to lust after her daughter-in-law.
Much of Onibaba is concerned with the resultant drama that unfolds between the three characters; the mother seems to be a bit sexually frustrated herself, and even attempts to seduce Hachi in her desperate attempt to halt his advances on the virtuous daughter-in-law. Her jealousy and fear are tangible, and the ugliness of these emotions drives the film--if you can call it that. A textbook example of a slow burn, one can hardly consider Onibaba to be forcefully driven, as itís delivered with a measured calmness that doesnít see much in the way of action for about an hour. Shindoís direction is reminiscent of a stage play, as this is a masterwork of minimalism: locations are confined to a few sets, is sparsely scored, and the shot compositions often frame the characters against sparse backdrops. This is much more dazzling and stylish than it sounds, however, as the film is precisely and efficiently photographed in black and white; meticulously draped in shadows, each frame is atmospheric and evocative.
The mood created by the filmís visuals is key, if only because they create ominous undertones rumbling off in the distance while we watch these characters. They prove to be a fascinating lot, especially the mother-in-law, who begins as quite a sympathetic character. Maybe itís because we donít trust Hachi, who does seem like a lascivious predator preying on the innocent daughter-in-law. Thereís a great, funny moment when he barks like a dog in order to draw the two women out of their hut, and the mother-in-law remarks that it must indeed just be an old dog ďlooking for a mate.Ē Her opinion probably wouldnít change much if she knew it was really Hachi, and it soon becomes clear that her distaste of him is fuelled by an ugly sense of jealousy. Though sheís a woman who has lost almost everything and is still clinging to whatever she has left in her daughter-in-law, she seems genuinely disturbed, particularly when we discover that Hachi is about as threatening as a newborn pup. Otawa eventually transforms her into a memorably deranged, witchy, wild-woman whose physical features become fraught with messiness and lunacy.
The various transformations are interesting to witness, as everything eventually gets turned on its head. We know something demonic is at hand, perhaps waiting among those tall, enveloping reeds. Thereís something subtly unnerving about the situation, as Shindo doesnít even inject traditionally scary imagery until the final act. Instead, he relies on the spookiness of the isolation and some mysterious events (such as the arrival of a enigmatic samurai) to signal the impending terror. Otherworldly and ethereal are terms that get kicked around a lot, but each apply to Onibaba, as one wonders if these characters arenít stuck in some kind of purgatorial torment. One senses that punishment is somehow in order because the deeds of all three characters seem a bit unforgivable; ostensibly, all three are murderers.
Interestingly enough, though, their murderous transgressions are mostly tabled. Instead, the personal drama among the three stays at the center, with the motherís biggest sin eventually driving the climax. Itís at this point that the filmís iconic demon haunts the characters in more ways than one. Terrifying in its stoic appearance, its presence feels inevitable and unending; perhaps this is why it appears three times--retribution is unavoidable, so it would seem. Even when we reach a climactic reveal that seems to deflate the movie, weíre hit with the storyís best, surreal trick that puts an interesting spin on that warning against making certain faces, lest you want you want to be frozen that way. A simple, timeless message for sure, but itís relayed in especially hellish, manic fashion here.
Speaking of hell, Onibaba makes for a neat thematic companion to Jigoku; while the latter film is concerned with a literal descent into hell, this one is more concerned about hell finding you out on Earth. One of the filmís most stark images--the hole in which the characters ditch the corpses of the slain samurai--is quite unsubtle about this. This literal burial is matched by the suppression of anguish and resentment; eventually, these surface along with what seems to be a physical manifestation of their sins. Haunted in more ways than one, perhaps, these characters are overtly concerned with punishments; at one point, the mother and the clearly terrified daughter-in-law share a conversation about lust (which is graphically on display with sexuality that likely felt dangerous in í64) being the worst kind of sin that carries the appropriate punishment.
Youíll have to see for yourself if that holds true; I canít recommend enough that you do. Donít be surprised if you find yourself drawn back to it, as itís definitely a film that requires rumination. Onibaba is one of those great films that burrows down in your mind and leaves you with indelible images; it essentially is a short story stretched out over 105 minutes, but it earns that runtime by being endlessly alluring with its cinematography and its tranquil sense of doom. Criterion released the film on DVD several years ago, which is probably endorsement enough for most. Their release is top-notch, featuring an anamorphic transfer thatís marked by a few artifacts, but is otherwise fine. As the film is marked by stunning contrasts, itís most important that the transfer reflects those, and it does. The mono track adequately delivers both the dialogue and the filmís scant, percussion-driven score. Special features include a 21 minute interview with Shindo, some raw behind-the-scenes footage, a photo gallery, and a booklet featuring an essay by Chuck Stephens, a translation of the original parable, and an essay from Shindo as well. A fine, twisted fable, Onibaba is one of the best films ever made about devils because its horrors dwell in the soul of man--or, in this case, one disturbed demon woman. Buy it!
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