Sunday 12 April 2009

Onibaba (1964)

Director: Kaneto Shindo
Stars: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura and Kei Sato

Within the dense eight foot tall pampas grass in a Japanese swamp, fighting men race almost hidden by their surroundings. Some are chasing, some escaping, some scavenging the bodies when those escaping are caught. This is 14th century Japan, which is rife with war: two rival emperors are fighting it out, with each side forcibly conscripting anyone they can find and laying waste to the country in the process. Kyoto is burning and one emperor is on the run. It isn't a good time for a mother and her daughter-in-law, living alone in a hut in the swamp with the man of the house gone to the war through no choice of his own.

They don't have names, these two, but they're surviving the war the only way they can. Crops have failed year after year and they have no man, so they're killing soldiers who find their way into the swamp with their reaping spears, then stripping their bodies of clothes, weapons and, not least, food and water. They keep what they need and trade the rest with a local merchant living off the war for more food. They drag the corpses through the swamp to dump them into a deep hole, which has some sort of significance that we're not immediately made aware of. And so they survive.

Into the mix comes Hachi, escaped from the war. He's another swamp dweller who lives nearby and who was forced into the war alongside Kichi, our scavengers' son/husband. He tells stories of how they were forced into the Ashikaga army, then captured by the enemy and promptly turned into Kusonoki soldiers. After all it didn't matter to them which side they fought on; it wasn't their war. He tells also of how Kichi is dead, killed by a band of farmers who they were attempting to rob.

And so we find ourselves in a bizarre love triangle. With Kichi dead, Hachi wants his wife. Hachi's wife is young and isn't going to say no, so sneaks out at night to get some. But Hachi's mother doesn't want any of this to happen, whether it be because she wants a man herself, because she doesn't want her partner to leave or, more probably, both. And while all of this is beautifully shot, well acted and highly atmospheric, we can't help but wonder where we're going, because this is supposed to be one of the great classic Japanese horror stories and we're not seeing anything that would fit into that genre, except perhaps the old woman's pronouncements about purgatory and sinner's hell to discourage her daughter-in-law from straying into Hachi's bed.

And then one night, into the women's hut while her daughter-in-law is away comes a samurai in a horned demon mask. He's apparently a samurai of good family trying to get back to his men and he needs direction. As they walk, he explains why he wears the mask. Apparently he is so beautiful that women fall in love with him when they see his face and so the mask protects him from them and from battle all at the same time. Now this old woman is hardly going to be that helpful to those who started the war that apparently killed her son, so she walks the samurai right into the hole.

What's more she uses the demon mask to scare the crap out of her daughter-in-law in an awesomely effective scene. Everything combines here to build the atmosphere and when this is sprung on us two thirds of the way through the film, it's a real shocker and we have our horror story with bells on. The cinematography is the biggest success, the whole film being truly gorgeous, even though all we really see is a swamp and a tiny handful of characters. In this tiny human drama, the omnipresent reeds and wind become characters themselves, something that director of photography Kiyomi Kuroda makes full use of. This swamp is amazing to see, in close up, in slow motion, in long shots, whether under moon or sun.

While the cinematography and camerawork are the most obvious successes, they only scratch the surface. The use of light is highly effective, showing us precisely what we need to see how we need to see it. The music by Hikaru Hayashi is understated and utterly appropriate, keeping entirely out of the way most of the time but then throwing us into frantic drum rhythms when needed. The acting doesn't let the side down either, even given that the whole film is carried by three actors and that we get surprisingly liberal doses of nudity for a 1964 film. Nobuko Otowa is most notable as the old woman.

The direction by Kaneto Shindo, who also wrote and designed the sets, is top notch, even better than the other film of his that I've seen, The Black Cat, made four years later. I'm certainly going to need to seek out more of his work. This is most certainly a triumph of classic Japanese horror, utterly timeless. This was made half a century ago and set half a millenium before that, but it's just as timely now and will remain so another five hundred years down the road. It's perhaps better than its frequent comparison in the classic Japanese horror genre, Kwaidan. Those comparisons are now obviously more due to the undeniable quality and the shared year of release more than anything else, the two being otherwise very different films.

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