Onibaba (1964)

“I’m not a demon! I’m a human being!”

‘Onibaba’, directed by Kaneto Shindo in 1964, is a Japanese morality tale with a disconcertingly hard erotic and horrific edge. It tells the story of a woman and her mother-in-law who murder soldiers in order to sell their armour. One night a samurai in a demon mask is killed by the older woman who then uses the mask to warn the younger woman away from a sexual affair with a neighbour. This works, until the mask gets wet with rain and the older woman finds she cannot remove it. It’s eerie and frightening. The setting, beds of tall reeds, is the key to the movie both in the way the reeds conceal and then reveal characters, but also in the way they sound. The noises: rustling, whining and screeching all add to the uncanny texture of the film. The ending is shocking and unresolved, Shindo dumps the viewer out of the story without giving them an answer, and in this way I was reminded of the ghost stories of M R James, particularly with the use of landscape, something also evident in the earlier ‘Sanshō Dayū‘. This is a different and, to a western audience, a more familiar approach to the use of the supernatural in movies. Unlike ‘Ugetsu Monogatari’, ‘Onibaba’ tells a traditional folktale in a way that makes the paranormal elements threatening rather than merely elegiac. The performances are broad, as would be expected of a film that draws so heavily from a theatrical tradition, but the scarcity of characters gives the film a claustrophobic feel. This is a tightly wound and economical thriller with some exceptional visual and aural shocks.

Would I recommend it? Yes – with ‘Ugetsu Monogatori’ for a contrast. Watch with the lights on though…

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