ONIBABA: A Dark Mirror Revisited

Kaneto Shindo’s horror/drama masterpiece Onibaba (or Devil Woman), is a film that reels you in from the get-go. Much like Hikaru Hayashi’s cacophonous soundtrack of drums, horns, shrieks, and guttural yells that beautifully accompanies the film, Onibaba itself can be seen as a discordant mixture of realism that culminates into a masterful collage. A collage that provides the viewer with a glimpse into the darkness that bleeds out of those pricked by desperation.
Shot in crisp black and white photography, the film is set in the marshes of warring feudal Japan. Tall and densely clustered, the marshes attract weary soldiers fleeing from the battlefront. Seeking refuge, they plunge deeper into the monochrome depths only to meet the sharp-tipped spears of the two women awaiting them. The women, a mother (Nobuko Otowa), and her daughter-in-law (Jotsuko Yoshimura) have been left to fend for themselves due to the absence of their respective son and husband Kishi, who’s suspected to have been killed in battle. Ravaged by hunger, they strip the soldiers of their valuable armor which they’ll later trade for food and toss the corpses into a gorge already holding and awaiting many more victims. The film then further goes on to explore the moral regression and moral abandonment that desolation entails, all beautifully complemented by Kiyomi Kuroda’s sinister cinematography.
Produced in 1964, the film released right in the middle of Japan’s New Wave, a decade’s long metamorphosis of Japanese Cinema, led by renegades and rebel directors, one of which being Kaneto Shindo. Onibaba followed the New Wave tradition of contradicting accepted cinematic etiquette by bringing sex, violence, and realism into focus. Consequently, upon release, the film received mixed reviews, with some, in particular, describing it as “self-indulgent” and “excessive”.
Onibaba: A Dark Mirror Revisited
source: Toho Company
Onibaba, then swept away by a torrent of more acclaimed films, remained in the shadows of Japanese cinema for a while. However, much like the story of other films, through subsequent revisits and re-views, the film eventually arose to cult status, etching a place among the pantheon of must-watch Japanese films. So what changed? What is it about Onibaba that makes it timeless?

 A Deceiving Exterior

At first glance, the film shares a variety of similarities with its contemporary sci-fi/b-horror movies that plagued the 50s/60s – films that externalized the societal fears looming over the period. From the apocalyptic atmosphere to its repugnant bleakness, Onibaba is reminiscent of the world that has dived off the brink of self-destruction. However, the film transcends that generalization.
We open on a shot of a marsh, the wind serenely blowing through the tall grass. The camera pans down and halts on a hole protruding from the overgrowth, dark and gaping like a missing eye. Cut to the bottom of the hole. The viewer is now looking up, and staring at the remnants of daylight struggling to get down.
Before the opening credits, Onibaba treats the viewer with the scene above. Although short and succinct, it’s a perfect introduction for what awaits the viewer. Gone are the ominous theremins that lingered behind the monochrome b-movie backdrops, instead replaced by the dissonant score of Hikaru Hayashi. Absent from the film are the archetypal stoic moral protagonists, and in its place are two women corrupted by desperation.
The film exudes a pessimism that runs much deeper than other contemporaneous films, particularly highlighted in Shindo’s characterization. Whereas the focus of socially ponderous films of the period was how in the fallout of destruction we’ll lose everything we’ve built, Onibaba is more focused on how we’ll also lose what makes us human, which is just as important.
The film’s main characters, Kishi’s mother and wife, exhibit more animalistic tendencies than that of human-like attributes. They function off of a daily ritual of kill, eat, and sleep, crucial to their survival against their mounting circumstances. Any emotional connection is virtually absent in their relationship as well as they’re torn apart with the introduction of a third party.
Onibaba: A Dark Mirror Revisited
source: Toho Company
Their charismatic neighbor Hachi, played by Kei Sato, makes his unexpected return from the battlefront and affirms their notion of Kishi’s death. Seemingly vindicated from her marital allegiance to Kishi, his now widowed wife turns to Hachi for sexual satisfaction. Embarking on nightly excursions to his hut, oblivious to the sleeping mother. With the mother’s eventual discovery, a rift begins to form between the two as the mother forbids her daughter in law from seeing Hachi partly because of her allegiance to her dead son, and partly due to her envy of the sexual satisfaction that she lacks.

Painting A Reflection

The bestial perspective that the film has on victims of catastrophe is quite jarring when first confronted with. But, when viewed in context with Shindo’s own experiences with catastrophe, it becomes much more understandable. Two decades before the film’s release, Shindo had to put his career on hold to serve in the Second World War. In his case, a part of the Imperial Navy. Following his return, he along with the whole nation was struck with feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and the shock of the atomic bomb being dropped. Like many other artists of the new wave, his tumultuous emotions inevitably manifested in his films, and Onibaba is no exception.
From changing the setting of the Buddhist parable that inspired the script from a temple to within the midst of a war, to his incorporation of imagery reminiscent of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims, the film is in some way wholly personal. The hero that carries the torch of morality through adversity is absent from this film simply because Shindo did not buy into that idea. Onibaba is a testament to his view that when staring into the face of desperation, survival necessitates one to abandon the hindering concepts of virtue and righteousness. Underneath our moral facades lies a resting darkness, the residue of our primordial selves, and it is Onibaba that attempts to unveil that darkness.

Onibaba: Conclusion

Shindo does not hypothesize, nor fabricate how humans would behave in tough circumstances. He does something more powerful: he holds a mirror up to the audience and allows us to gaze into the film’s characters while simultaneously gazing into ourselves. Onibaba pulls no punches when showing the true ugliness that war draws out of its victims. It peers over the mountains of our consciousness, stares into the abyss where true darkness rests, and with swift strikes paints a beautiful reflection of that darkness.
What are some of your thoughts on Onibaba?
Onibaba is now available to stream on the Criterion Channel in the U.S.

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