March 21, 2002
Onibaba (1964) is a cautionary tale about the dehumanizing effects of a war raging between two clans in Medieval Japan. The neglected crops have turned to weeds which forces peasants to become scavengers. Two women-a mother (Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Yoshimura) live in a marshland populated by a vast expanse of tall grass which they use to sneak up on and kill the occasional errant samurai. They then strip the body of all its possessions, toss it into a large pit and sell their spoils for food in order to survive. A neighbour (Sato) returns from the battles to inform the two women that the mother’s son has been killed. He and the daughter become involved in a passionate affair that doesn’t sit too well with the mother. The relationship between the three soon becomes embroiled in jealousy, paranoia and lust with a horrific karmic payback.
Director Kaneto Shindo effectively establishes the atmosphere of his movie from the opening shot-a field of tall grass swaying ominously in the wind. At first, the shots of the grass are quite beautiful but over time they become more and more disturbing, almost as if they are closing in on the characters, threatening to swallow them up. The grass is a crucial element not only to the look of the film but also to the story. The two women hide in it to prey on their victims because of its height and it also reveals them when pushed aside.
It is Shindo’s attention to atmospheric details, like the occasional cutaways to forbidding shots of black crows that seem to be observing, waiting for something to happen. There is something truly unsettling about these inserts that adds to the feeling of unease that permeates Onibaba.
At a time when Japanese cinema had shifted to colour, Shindo decided to shoot his movie in black and white. This only enhances the unsettling mood of the film as he uses shadows and plays with light to illustrate the characters’ emotions.
Everything that these women do is geared towards survival. They are tough, hardened by the effects of the war. They have had to kill in order to exist. The mother is established as a moral person. She says at one point, “Those who sin in this world go to purgatory when they die.” She believes in hell for sinners-those who give into lust. As the film progresses, the mother slips further into madness and the daughter into lust. Both will be punished for their sins.
Kaneto Shindo is interviewed and talks at length about how he got into filmmaking and, in particular, his experience working on Onibaba. He feels that killing during war is a necessary evil because people do it in order to survive. Shindo comes across as a very intelligent man who speaks articulately about his movie.
“Behind the Scenes” is Super-8 footage shot by actor Kei Sato and depicts the day-to-day grind of making Onibaba under trying conditions. At one point, intense storms caused flooding of the sets and then they were invaded by crawfish and bugs. Sato captures some impressive location footage and candidly shows the production’s less than glamourous living conditions.
There is also a theatrical trailer which is more of a montage of scenes from the film and features some footage that could be construed as spoiler material.
Finally, there is a gallery of production drawings and promotional artwork.
The characters in Onibaba are a metaphor for what happens to people in times of war. They all become savages, doing what they have to in order to survive. During medieval times it was for something as basic as food, nowadays it is money. There is a psychological tug-of-war between the two women in Onibaba that results in a chilling karmic payback for what they have done to others.