Onibaba: 1964 directed by Kaneto Shindo

Onibaba (meaning Demon Woman) is a Japanese horror film, made in 1964, and set in a war-torn 14th century Japan. The film, directed by the acclaimed director, Kaneto Shindo, narrates the story of three people: an old woman (Nabuko Otowa), her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura), and a friend of the old woman’s son (Kei Sato), who has just escaped from war and come back to the countryside. The film follows the lives of the two women, who, in order to make a living, murder lost Samurai, and other soldiers, and then dump their bodies in a deep pit near the river. Later they exchange their victims’ armour and clothes for quantities of grain.

Meanwhile, the friend tries to seduce the daughter-in-law on a number of occasions. At length, his persistence bears fruit, resulting in the daughter-in-law starting a purely physical relationship with him. The affair reaches a point where, every night, after the mother and daughter-in-law have to bed, and the old woman falls asleep, the daughter sneaks out of their hut to go visit the man, and comes back before dawn. One night, the old woman finds out about this. On finding out about the relationship, the mother-in-law puts on the mask of a Samurai she had killed that will haunt the young woman, as punishment for her immoral sins of flesh. However, she discovers, to her utter shock and horror, that she cannot remove the mask, as it is stuck to her face. The daughter-in-law tries to help the older woman in taking it off, but only after the older woman apologizes for her actions and promises to never interfere in their affair again. But even then, the mask refuses to come off. In the end, she takes and axe and slams it on the older woman’s face till the mask cracks. The now horrifically maimed facial features of the older woman are a grotesque sight to behold.

The film has got some astonishing outdoor cinematography. The sudden break from the narrative to show blades of grass ruffling in the wind, adds much more than a cathartic respite: it juxtaposes the beauty of seemingly insignificant things in nature with the man’s two great primal emotions, namely lust and fear. Sometimes the film uses sped up editing and at other times make use of slow motion. This, together with a gripping soundtrack from Hikaru Hayashi befitting the mood the film aims to create, makes the film an absolute experience.

The visual and aural impact stays on the spectator’s mind for a long time. Ranging from themes as diverse as peasant life in war-torn medieval Japan, to the inescapable human need of sexual fulfillment, to allegorical implications of stripping down the fibre of human civilization, the film is dark, and primitive, and everything that the progress of man is proud to have left behind. Killing for survival, lust, bargain and penance are some of the elements that hold the story together.

And if one is not watching it only for the intellectual exercise, one can rest assured; one will be more than just entertained.

Vipul Ralph Shah
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