There’s something of the fairy tale in all of Kaneto Shindo’s films. Onibaba is no exception. The characters aren’t so much real people as they are archetypes in this fable about human animals, war, and sex. It’s an impressive visual tour de force, especially when you consider that almost all of the action takes place in a massive field of susuki grass.
The story is simple. A young man named Kichi has been conscripted into one of the many armies present during Japan’s warring states period, leaving the women in his life to fend for themselves. His mother and wife make ends meet by killing off any samurai who wander into the tall grass near their hut and selling their arms and armor. They ditch the bodies in a pit that lies hidden in the grass and wait to see if the winds of fate will ever return their loved one. Eventually, Kichi’s friend Hachi does return, but with bad news. Kichi was killed and Hachi barely got away with his own skin.
Shindo uses this simple plot to explore the smallness of humans in the world and the drives that help us all to survive. The women have become little more than animals, living in squalor and feeding ravenously on what little food they can kill or scavenge. Hachi is filled with lust that soon infects his friend’s widow and which frightens Kichi’s mother. Death and sex intertwine and reiforce one another as the only ways that these people can survive. The outside world has turned on them, so they mostly ignore it, focusing instead on their tiny existence in their claustrophobic field of tall grass.
While the thematic content of the film is interesting, it’s the visual cues that really set it apart. It’s so visually articulate that anyone could watch and enjoy it without ever hearing (or reading) a line of dialog. Shindo and cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda (who also shot his masterwork, Kuroneko) create such a rich set of black and white images that it’s a shame that the film isn’t a little more tightly edited. I felt the film to be 15-20 minutes too long. The middle section really sags, but it might just feel that way to my modern eyes.
The film also excels sonically, presenting a coherant sound design that reinforces all of the important themes. The largely percussive score by prolific composer Hiraku Hayashi only stumbles during the credits when some out of place hipster jazz elements are included. That’s a misstep that’s easy to blame on the times and the rest of the score is exceptional.
All three lead actors are very good, despite the fact that their roles are largely two-dimensional. That’s okay. This is a dark fairy tale, after all. But their bold performances add more depth than might have been present on the page and give the story a significant boost.
The presence of the Hannya mask is the only element that confused me. When we first see it, it’s being worn by a samurai general. Most Japanese would be familiar with the conventions of Noh theatre and would recognize the mask to be the representation of a woman who becomes a demon in death due to her own jealous rage. The presence of this mask on a male character says a lot but I’m still trying to come to terms with the statement. I can’t really say more here without giving away key plot points but suffice it to say that the film has given me more than a little to chew on.
While not the masterpiece that Kuroneko is, you can see Shindo working through a similar set of themes here. Kuroneko is simply the further refinement of the same ideas. Both movies feature the mother and wife of a man who was conscripted against his will. Both show these women trying to survive against a backdrop of brutality. But Kuroneko allows the women to have at least some of the power in the end, whereas Kichi’s wife and mother remain slaves to their circumstances. I think that makes for two very different statements. I think I’d have enjoyed Onibaba more had I not seen Kuroneko first, but I can’t help but recommend such virtuosic filmmaking. I’m looking forward to exploring more of Shindo’s work.