Okane (Ayako Wakao, star of Red Angel) comes from a poor family, is the young bride of a gross old man. So she poisons him to death, claims her inheritance and returns to her mother’s village, where the people completely ostracize her. When her mother dies from illness, Okane agrees to watch her retarded cousin Heisuke, and they live in their rich, lonely house.

When golden boy Seisaku (Takahiro Tamura, murdered husband in Empire of Passion) returns to the village, he gets the opposite reaction – constant praise and a parade in his honor. He takes to ringing a bell every morning to awaken the whole town and inspire them to get to work. He enlists people to help with Okane’s mother’s burial, chastising them for being terrible to her. Inevitably the two get together, but brave Seisaku returns to war, and everyone goes back to being shitty towards Okane for the next six months.

Okane, hated:

Seisaku, loved:

Seisaku returns wounded, and as full of honor as ever, promising next time he’ll die for his country. The two are unofficially married, sleeping together but nobody in town (and certainly not Seisaku’s family) takes her seriously. He’s all she has, and life is horrible without him, so she pokes out his eyes with a giant nail as he prepares to leave again.

Okane with Heisuke:

Okane with nail:

She’s sentenced to two years, and since Japan doesn’t understand logic, the whole town hates Seisaku for dishonorably failing to return to war, figuring he was in on the plot with his wife – a woman none of them ever trusted. During that time, he understands how it feels to be an outcast, and after Okane returns, they go away together. “Without you I would have stayed a stupid role model soldier.” Good story, but I was sick of the hateful villagers and wished for a Carrie ending: punishment for all.

Written by Kaneto Shindo, who also made the great Onibaba and died a month ago at the age of 100.

From the start it’s got similarly great cinematography and sound-effect-punctuated music as Onibaba, so this is already a winner. It’s another sometimes-erotic ghost story featuring a woman and her daughter-in-law left behind when the men all go to war – was this a running theme in Shindo’s movies? But this time the son/husband returns, and the women themselves don’t fare so well.

Gintoki’s mother (Nobuko Otowa, Shindo’s main mother figure in Onibaba, Naked Island and Mother) and young wife (Kiwako Taichi of the 24th Zatoichi movie) are raped and killed by soldiers, their house burned to the ground, the only witness their black cat.

A year or two later, soldier Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura of Double Suicide) is sent by his boss to defeat the vengeful feline spirits that have been killing his compatriots – the girl luring them to a phantom house in the woods, serving up hot love after the mother serves hot tea. Then the men appear the next morning with their throats torn out.

Gintoki as a ragged warrior, displaying the head of an enemy warlord:

He cleans up nice:

When Gintoki visits the house and discovers the identity of the spirits, he travels to the forest night after night to spend time with them. The wife breaks her vow to drink the blood of all samurai, spending a few nights of love with her husband before disappearing to hell. Mom keeps going out and killing guys though, and Lord Raiko (Kei Sato, Hachi in Onibaba) is demanding results, so Gintoki finally attacks his mother, cutting off her arm, and brings the arm to Raiko as proof of his triumph. But ghost-mom retrieves her cat-arm, and Gintoki goes somewhat insane trying to catch her, falls dead in the ruins of their old house as snow begins to fall and a cat meows.

The visual effects are more complicated than Onibaba‘s. The mother’s hair twitches like a cat’s tail (can the girls turn into cats?), and the movie shows us the unreality of their forest home via a split-screen sky in constant motion through the trees, so that they always seem to be moving while standing still.

M. McDonagh:

Gintoki’s psychologically charged cat-and-mouse game with the spectral women is Kuroneko’s darkly seductive heart. He both recognizes Shige and Yone and knows they aren’t the Shige and Yone he left behind; given the place and time, it seems entirely reasonable for him to suspect they’re demons who’ve cruelly appropriated the appearance of the most important women in his life. That said, the newly minted samurai understands how much a few years can change a person. The ghost women, meanwhile, are wrestling with their own dilemma: they know perfectly well that under the warrior finery, their guest is Hachi, and wish they didn’t. There’s no real winning here, just infinite degrees of losing—losing one’s soul, life, honor, or humanity.

Brilliant movie. It’s a simple, straightforward story with just a few characters, but manages to have some of the most indelible horror scenes, the most erotic moments, best cinematography and craziest music I’ve seen/heard all year. The music has a real sense of humor, with punctuating sound effects, all drum-drumma-drum-drumma slash-YEAAAGH! drum-drumma-drum-drumma slash-YEAAAGH! a hundred times in a row. Later it uses a crackling sound, like someone walking on sticks.

The main characters are credited by their relationship to a missing man – Kichi’s Mother (Nobuko Otowa, also of Shindo’s Naked Island) and Kichi’s Wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura of Pigs and Battleships). Kichi never appears, and we assume he’s dead because his friend and neighbor Hachi (Kei Sato, the warden in Death By Hanging, a reporter in Pitfall) returns from war (escaped, not dismissed) and tells them so. Hachi’s kind of a bastard, so mom is suspicious that he’s lying, but mostly she’s afraid that Kichi’s horny widow will abandon her for Hachi. Before he showed up, the two women had a good racket going, killing unsuspecting escaped warriors who are either hiding or lost in the tall grasses and selling their armor and weapons to local merchant Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama, who possibly got naked in In the Realm of the Senses, was also in Vengeance Is Mine).

The two killers:

Ushi:

The young widow begins waiting for mom to fall asleep then sneaking away, racing through the grasses to Hachi’s hut. When I mentioned erotic scenes above, I meant the running itself, not their embrace after she arrives. The camera flies with her through the grass as she flails ahead at full tilt, mouth open, ecstatic with anticipation.

Hachi:

One night a demon-masked man appears at the hut when mom is alone and orders her to show him the way out of the grasses. He claims the mask protects his extremely handsome face and intimidates the enemy, and refuses to remove it when she asks. She leads him straight into the deep hole where they dispose of the soldiers they kill, then she drops down on a rope the next day and removes his mask, using it at night to scare her daughter-in-law into returning home, after a setup lecture about sin and punishment. But after one rainy night, the mask gets stuck, and after much pulling and prying, finally comes tearing off, disfiguring the mother’s face in the process. Incidentally, Hachi is killed the same night, but neither of the women find this out before the movie ends. The daughter flees, “a real demon!” and the mother follows, falling headlong into the hole shouting “I’m a human being!”

Criterion:

Released in Japan in 1964, the same year as Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes (a film to which it bears a number of striking resemblances), Onibaba is based on a Buddhist parable meant to encourage women’s attendance at religious convocations. But in Shindo’s hands the parable is gleefully deformed into a cautionary tale about sexual jealousy and unrequited passion, reaffirming his propensity for superimposing the modern and the ancient, not to mention God and the devil. Not only was Onibaba the director’s first period film, set in the sixteenth century during a time of constant war and ceaseless famine, it was also his first (of several to come) to place an overt focus — in shot after shot of the topless torsos of its central characters — on the ways that sexual desire, while essential to human survival, can also have cataclysmic consequences.