Friday, July 17, 2009

Onibaba (1964)
JAPAN --- horror

Dir: Kaneto Shindô

The title translates as “demon woman” or “demon-hag” to be specific. At first glimpse, you watch this film and you feel you’re in a surreal piece of early Japanese cinema elevating to some samurai action hopefully. But that never happens. You’re two protagonists are two women scavenger hunters killing wayward samurai in the tall swampy reeds and stealing their belongings to sell for food. This is how they live during an apparent war torn country in feudal Japan.

This is the way of life for these two women. Who fish and hunt on a daily basis. The mother has a son away in war, daughter-in-law has this same man to await, and this brutal way to survive is the only way to live; that is until a male neighbor (Hachi) returns from war with bad news of their loved one. Now, surviving is all they have left, for hope has just been dissipated. Once this hope completely vanishes, Hachi has let it be known he has designs on the daughter-in-law. He’s completely enamored with her, but he never goes so far to take what he wants, because in this harrowing time of isolation, it really is only a matter of time.

As Hachi continues to declare his amour for the young woman, the older woman in turn becomes enraged at the fact that not only is her daughter-in-law forgetting her son so quickly, but is taking a man she wouldn’t mind having herself. The other matter is she would be losing her partner in both crime and survival. The woman warns both her daughter-in-law and Hachi to stay away from each other, but she soon discovers her words were not heeded. Mother tells daughter-in-law that her actions have consequences that enrage the spirit world, and that evil deeds are punished by demons. Daughter-in-law doesn’t believe in it, and that night she returns to Hachi, leaving the old woman alone. This night, a masked samurai finds her hut, and is only in need of direction, but the woman sees more money at the door. She reluctantly leads the samurai out, but plans to trap him in a ditch.

On the way, the woman demands to see the samurai’s face, and the samurai tells her he’s cursed to wear it for his beauty. Once he falls into the trap, the woman goes down to collect the armor and stuff, including the mysterious mask. The mask is at first difficult to get off, but she eventually gets it off and uses it for her own plot, to scare her daughter-in-law away from Hachi. It works too, but then she finds that that samurai’s curse may have not been him just kidding; now she cannot remove the mask.

Onibaba is probably one of the best early Japanese films I’ve seen, and as its story is simplistic and haunting, it has a subtle horror lying in wait after every frame. It’s cinematography in stark black-and-white is mesmerizing and atmospherically melodic. Director Kaneto Shindô builds so much tension and emotion with the superb actors and barebones plot (which is loosely adapted from a Buddhist fable), that the visualization pieced with the creepy minimalist taiko score make it a beautiful art film. He also amazing allows some production design to do its work. Notice the old woman’s kimono is adorned with a crab. We’ve all heard the old saying “crabs in a bucket”; perfect description for the characters in this film. In our astrological zodiac it is the symbol for the sign Cancer, that’s saying one thing alone. However if you dig deeper, you get some other references like the fact that that sign is a Water element, and is also feminine and negative sign. I guess one would really have to be into astrology or know someone of this sign for it to get home. But knowing this alone, helps with the title character. This is the perfect companion piece to Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu.