Criterion // 1964 // 103 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // May 17th, 2004
"A vast field of grass. There's no telling what demons and snakes live here." -- A doomed samurai (Jukichi Uno)
On the horizon, plumes of smoke mark the awful climax of another battle. That means soldiers will be coming this way, either fleeing the carnage or looking for some farm to loot. But on this farm, enveloped by an ocean of susuki grass, such errant, violent men are likely to meet a nasty surprise. While waiting for their man to come home from the war, the man's wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura) and his mother (Nobuko Otowa) protect themselves by slaughtering passing samurai and dumping the corpses down a dark hole. They then sell the armor and weapons to a local fence (Taiji Tonoyama) to buy food.
Rage clings to this farm like the sheen of sweat on these women's bare skin. Their rage is what binds them together. When neighbor Hachi (Kei Sato) returns home with bad news and a leering hunger for the newly widowed wife of his dead friend, the women discover that there are holes deeper and more dangerous than the one into which they throw their victims. Desire is an abyss from which no one escapes.
First, there is the Hole. Surrounded by waving grass, the Hole is still and silent. Its emptiness marks what Plato would call a khora, the reception space, an empty container which marks some sort of potentiality. The khora is that which receives, waiting. It is in a sense both empty (that is, it is waiting to receive) and full (that is, it takes up space) at once. As Jacques Derrida suggests in On the Name: "Khora 'means': place occupied by someone, country, inhabited place, marked place, rank, post, assigned position, territory, or region. And in fact, khora will always already by occupied, invested, even as a general place, and even when it is distinguished from everything that takes place in it" (109). Curiously, Plato also associates this waiting vessel with birth and the figure of motherhood: the womb itself. Even an amateur Freudian can guess where this is heading: wounded men in Onibaba fight through a sea of whispering grass, like sharp phalluses, as if masculine power has been turned against them. Speared unseen by feral women, they are stripped of their armor and dumped in a great hole, thus completing the humiliation of their gender.
But Onibaba never makes the women more threatening than the men who prowl around their destitute farm. These women are never soft, but they are also not mere sociopaths. Social class is crucial here. These women are poor; they are survivors. Their callous approach to murder is only necessary in a world where men are the only authorized killers. As Hachi remarks, hearing that Kyoto has been razed by some army or another, "It's a business with them." Somebody must be profiting from war, right? Aimless samurai steal what they can and change sides to whoever pays better.
The only samurai who speaks about his cruelty in the war turns up in the film's second act. He wears the mask of an oni, or demon. He claims that the mask protects his beautiful face from battle scars, but after the Mother lures him into the Hole, she must tear the mask from his face, taking his flesh with it. Was he really a demon? Did the war make him monstrous, or was the war a product of his monstrousness? In turn, we know nothing about what these women were like before their beloved Kichi left the farm to try and become a hero in battle. Only men in the film have names; women in this society have no power or stature. We know these two women in the film only by their relationship to the dead Kichi: as Mother and Wife (and even then, the film never refers to them as such -- I am only using it here for clarity's sake). Could they have killed so easily before poverty and fear drove them to the business of murder?
Writer and director Kaneto Shindo takes the premise for Onibaba ("Demon Woman") from a folktale designed to instill obedience in women: a mother tries to frighten her daughter-in-law from going to the local Buddhist temple by disguising herself in a demon mask, only to find the mask stuck to her face. When she begs for forgiveness, the mask comes off, and the older woman becomes a faithful believer. From this brief fable, Shindo crafts an indictment of the objectification of women in Japanese culture.
Freud might suggest that the Hole is the abyss of feminine desire into which these women lure men. But note here that their victims are samurai, whose violence is condoned by society, who have wandered away from sanctioned battle either as deserters or looters. To condemn these women for trying to survive would be hypocrisy. Thus, the Hole marks a sexual double standard, a gap into which female power recedes. Ironically, the Hole was a set built for the film above the ground: the swampy location kept filling up with water every time Shindo's production crew tried to dig. Perhaps Mother Nature abhors a metaphor.
Still, Onibaba is filled with claustrophobic spaces: the women's sweaty hut, Ushi's shadowy cave, the emptiness at the center of all their hearts. As many outdoor scenes as this film has, it always seems as if walls are closing in. Shindo's prowling, predatory camera scrutinizes every detail, every move, often in close-up.
Outside these enclosures, the world is falling apart. Kyoto is in ruins; the Emperor is in flight (in fact, we are told there are at least two Emperors claiming the throne). Shindo removes the spiritual elements from the original tale to create an existential thriller about desire and rage. Hachi arrives at the farm in the clothes of a murdered priest, and later announces with a sneer that there is no Buddha. Kichi, the lost son, was beaten to death after hiding from a battle. Mother and Wife can barely express grief over the loss -- this is just another piece of bad luck to seethe about. They eat fiercely. Even doing laundry seems filled with rage. Onibaba is an angry, apocalyptic film, a bitchslap to samurai movies that extol the virtues and manly honor found in war.
Instead of virtue and honor, there is only unbounded desire. Hachi, drunk and frustrated, finds the Hole and shouts into it. His bestial screams, like Nietzsche's abyss, echo back. Hachi tells the Hole of his desire: "I want a woman." But even this desire is tainted by anger and cruelty. The Wife's flirtation with Hachi includes throwing a rock through his door, then wrestling with him like a wild animal. The erotic elements of this tale have all the bite of a Jim Thompson crime novel, punctuated with percussive jazz by Hikaru Hayashi.
And then there is the sexual jealousy: Mother fears she will be supplanted ("I can't kill without her!") and worse -- her daughter-in-law's sexual appetites remind her of her own unfulfilled sexual needs. Of course, she is too old, her desires excessive and inappropriate in a society where desire is only for the young. By the time the third act comes and she dons the oni mask in an effort to scare her daughter-in-law away from Hachi, she has already become, as feminist film critic Vivian Sobchack would say, both "scared and scary." Shindo has completely transformed the original folktale from its search for spiritual fulfillment to the satisfaction of very human hungers: survival, companionship, and sexuality. Just as the Hole is not a gateway to some hell (since the hell has already come to Earth), the demon mask is not a gate through which spiritual evil (some "real" demon) might pass, but a marker of the ethical corruption that already surrounds the world like the endless stalks of waving, hissing grass.
So does this make Onibaba a horror film? Sort of, but only one in which the supernatural has been replaced by the horror of human nature. Is it a war story? Perhaps it is more about the aftermath of war, the scrabbling desperation of those left behind in war's wake. Criterion's packaging and menus for Onibaba, suggestive of "floating world" painting, might make us wonder if Onibaba is meant as some twisted fairy tale. If so, it is far more stark and cruel than anything even the Grimm Brothers might offer.
Well, whatever Onibaba is, it is well worth watching in this Criterion DVD release. Criterion includes a few interesting extras: some Super-8 footage (silent, running about 38 minutes) chronicling the difficulty of the film's swamp-bound production and a recent 21-minute interview with Kaneto Shindo (now in his 90s and still making films) discussing some of the themes of the film. Both expand our understanding of this surprisingly complex assault on class and gender politics disguised as period thriller. Of course, the film could seriously benefit from a commentary track (and I have only touched the surface above). In any case, apart from a few scratches here and there, the print has that sharp quality that any noir should have, capturing the subtle movement of waving grass and the glow of sweaty faces. So even if you never quite figure out what it is trying to say, you can relish watching the film just for its chilling style.
You probably think you know Japanese cinema pretty well, having watched a few Kurosawa films, and perhaps even some Ozu or Mizoguchi. But Onibaba is unlike anything you have seen. Call it medieval noir. Call it a Marxist-feminist horror movie. There is something a bit demonic about this film: angry, excessive, and hypnotic. Check it out -- or we'll throw you in the Hole.
Since the law no longer applies in a world ravaged by war, this court is forced to release all parties, irrespective of their crimes. Criterion is commended as usual for a job well done. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Behind the Scenes Footage
* Interview with Kaneto Shindo
* Production and Promotion Gallery
* Theatrical Trailer