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:
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.
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!”
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.