Today, we jump out of the silent era and over to Japan. Over the next five days, I’ll be looking at known and lesser known Japanese horror films of the past. First up, Onibaba, from director Kaneto Shindo, filmed in 1964. The title translates to “demon hag”, which describes very much what you get in the film…you just have to travel a bit to get there.
Set in Japan during a civil war in the fourteenth century, our two main characters are an old woman and a younger woman. No names are given, even when another main character is introduced. These two women are living in a field covered with tall reeds. We learn very quickly that these two women are killing soldiers who stray close to their home. They strip the bodies and throw them down into a deep pit. Then, they take their belongings to a trader in exchange for food. They were once farmers but their crops get trampled by soldiers and all the men have left to fight, including the old woman’s son, who is married to the young woman. It’s a bleak existence and you get a feeling of desperation and isolation very early on in the movie.
A man named Hachi (Kei Sato) returns with news that the son is dead. It’s only a matter of time before Hachi and the young woman (JitsukoYoshimura) are engaging in sex, which infuriates the old woman (Nobuko Otowa). She appears to be sexually frustrated herself as well as fearful that Hachi will take the girl away, since she needs her help to kill men and stay alive. She is also angry that her son did not return and begins to guilt the young girl for having relations with Hachi. As this point, a samurai wearing a mask shows up and soon becomes prey for the old woman. He’s wearing a demon mask and, upon his death, the old woman takes the mask with great difficulty. She begins to hatch a plot that will have grave consequences in the end.
Onibaba is based on a Buddhist fable with a few liberties taken here and there for the plot. The movie plays off as more drama than horror. However, the horror elements are well filmed and the feeling of despair and dread are prevalent throughout much of the movie. It is a bit of a slow burn but director Kaneto Shindo gives us a taste here of what he would do even better in 1968 with Kuroneko (highly recommended). Add to that an amazing score by Hikaru Hayashi and Onibaba is a movie that will surely entertain, filled with great acting and an intriguing story. Just don’t expect it to scare you to death. It is currently available on DVD from The Criterion Collection, so you know the print is amazing. It also has a great interview with Shindo that offers some highlights on the interesting filming process.