Sunday, October 3, 2010


Japan, the Warring States period. A peasant woman and her daughter in law scratch out subsistence by slaying wayward soldiers and bartering their weapons for food. Into their midst comes Hachi, a neighbor/AWOL soldier who tells them that their son/husband was killed. The triangle that forms between these three characters has sharp corners indeed, and the intensifying jealousy, lust, and hatred between them kicks into overdrive when one of them comes upon a terrifying demon mask.

Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba treads similar territory to a number of Japanese films of the 50s and 60s. Films like Fires on the Plain capture soldiers and civilians alike on the run from conflict, their desperation to survive turning them to extreme behaviors that reveal the ultimate darkness within the human soul. Perhaps because its supernatural aspects are more overt, Onibaba is less effective and horrific than similar films. Though understandably driven to desperation by ongoing lives of trauma, the uniformly unpleasant characters of the film are difficult to feel for on a visceral level, diluting the impact of their ultimate fates.

But Onibaba is a visual marvel, making maximum use of its evocative susuki field settings. As fond as your proprietor is of the theatrical, artificial mise-en-scenes of Japan's most audacious filmmakers (and their art directors), the wind-swept susuki creates a lush but threatening presence that is a striking and ever-present character (a chorus, perhaps) in its own right. Superstition reigns powerfully over the film's characters, with summer frost rendering crops barren and two-headed calves portending danger. This free-wheeling chaos has turned gender roles topsy-turvy (Freudian imagery plays powerfully throughout): men are reduced to fleeing cowards, and the two women turn phallic spears on their male victims, and dispose of their prey in a gaping, yonic maw that lurks in the scenery like a shark. It's an effective liminal zone, and one becomes as tense and lost in the on-screen bewilderness as any of Shindo's characters.

If the simplicity of the script belies its origins in a short Buddhist parable, the actors hit their respective one notes with gusto. Sketchy though Onibaba sometimes is, aspects of it linger, be it the silent-then-batshit score of Hikaru Hayashi or the susuki, restless but quiet as it shakes ominously in the wind.

This review is part of the Final Girl Film Club, run with efficiency and verve by the wild and wily Stacie Ponder.

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