"The Hole…Deep and Dark - Its darkness has lasted since ancient times": A worded opening with an image of a large hole in the ground surrounded by some of the tallest blades of wavering grass open the film and make us wonder if we are watching a Japanese Horror B-film or a folklore ghost story, the kind our grandmas narrated to us as kids! Later, a soundtrack of Taiko drums and jazz music follows, that almost startles, but entices with its infectious rhythm. "Onibaba" (1964), then unfolds in its chilling and raw glory, and all preconceptions are shattered as it leaves an indelible impression on the viewer.
Based on a Shin Buddhist parable (not entirely wrong to use the word folklore then), "Onibaba", set in the war stricken 14th Century Japan tells the story of three individuals left to survive in the harsh world of hunger and poverty. While menfolk are sent off to battle, a woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her comely daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) struggle to make ends meet while waiting for news from their man Kichi, her son and the younger woman's husband. They are reduced to stealing from lost and wounded soldiers, by sometimes killing them, in order to sell their armors and weapons to a local fence who exchanges the goods for food grains. The two women seem to find solace in each other in the big brutish world, but this equilibrium is disturbed when Hachi (Kei Sato) who went to war with Kichi escapes from the army, returns and declares that Kichi got killed in combat.
"Onibaba" is a simple tale, yet one that packs a mighty powerful punch with its potent underlying theme and rich symbolism. Kaneto Shindo showcases a universe in which man is stripped down to his most basic (literally!). The primary characters all live an animal-like life. Capture anything that is living and kill it, either to steal off it, or roast it on a fire to gorge on its flesh! In the end it all boils down to satisfying one's hunger. But Shindo's film focuses not only on the physiological hunger, but also the physical one! The ravenous appetite of the stomach is supplemented with a sexual appetite that is far too great, owing to a prolonged deprivation in such dangerous times of living on the edge! Excess of it can lead to a blinding effect and even the soundest of human minds can stray. Shindo’s characters are far from sound; at least two of them.
Hachi is anything but likeable but he makes for a compelling character of a lustful peasant who looks at the young wife of Kichi with hungry eyes and seems to have no remorse for his dead friend. The older woman is a tormented individual torn apart between sin and morality; a woman who hasn't had a man in several years. Sexually repressed but morally steadfast so far, she finds herself becoming a victim of ever increasing jealousy that stems from the attention her daughter-in-law gets from Hachi!
The younger woman on the other hand, stands by her mother-in-law, is loyal to her husband, but after a while of mourning upon hearing of his death, lets lust overpower her sorrow and attempts to answer the opportunity that knocks in the form of the only living man around who shows interest in her! The sexual tension here is palpable; so is the smile tinged with guilty pleasure that appears on the younger woman's face whenever she hears Hachi's knocking. It is a fascinating display of traits that are at their convincing best, given the sorry condition these poor beings are forced to live with.
Shindo paints a believable picture of the era and its medieval lifestyle, with its casual nudity and raw sex; the latter not merely for titillation but to make us see and realize the hunger! He uses gorgeous chiaroscuro in stark black and white cinematography; an effect that is especially enhanced in the scenes shot in the dark, inside the hutments and also when it captures the actors' faces in close-ups. The actors do a terrific job as well, with Nobuko Otawa delivering the greatest performance in the film.
The meticulous use of lighting gives off a rather eerie aura to every frame; something like a surreal painting or the artwork from a book of old ghost stories. Breathtaking images of the lush marshlands full of tall grass that sways in the wind gives an additional creepy effect; an unsettling feeling of an invisible ghost rustling through it! The aforementioned Taiko drum score is catchy and addictive, especially due to the racy drum beat interrupted by a staccato that ends with the sound effect akin to the muffled scream of someone suddenly pierced with a spear!
And then there is the mask! There is rarely anything quite so ugly and scary as the ominous mask in "Onibaba"! The mask, its grotesque and dramatic appearance and usage in the story is often said to be an influence of the Noh theatre. The mask, apart from being the most integral part of this story, is responsible for creating some nail-biting tension in the film that gradually builds to a crescendo and finally delivers to the ghastly climax which will leave you gasping for breath with its extraordinary intensity!
Kaneto Shindo's "Onibaba" is a terrifying psychological horror masterpiece that takes us to the deepest and darkest depths of depravity, envy and greed that plague the human mind and make demons out of men. To miss it would be a sin. Save yourself from hell…watch "Onibaba"!