As two would-be Emperors battle for control over medieval Japan, Kyoto burns and survivors are left to eke out an existence in the grip of crushing poverty and starvation. Two unnamed women await news of Kichi, who left for the war some time ago. His mother (Nobuko Otowa) and his wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura) survive a non-existent harvest by turning to savagery: when wandering samurai wander through the susuki grass near their hut, the women pounce, killing the men, stripping them of their possessions, and tossing the bodies into a gaping hole in the field. They sell swords and halberds in a dismal underground market in exchange for bags of millet not to thrive, but merely to exist.
Their neighbor Hachi (Kei Sato) returns after deserting the army and tells the women that Kichi is dead. Before long, he sets his sights on the widow and, his intentions clear, invites her to his hut. Though her mother-in-law warns her against it, the young woman finds herself enamoured with Hachi and repeatedly steals away to his hut in the dead of night. As her jealousy and fear of abandonment grow, the older woman pleads with Hachi to leave the girl alone, even offering herself up in her daughter-in-law's stead. Hachi refuses and insists that the affair will continue.
The mother encounters a samurai in a terrifying oni mask and eventually agrees to take him to the road to Kyoto if he, in turn, will remove the mask and show his face. He balks, claiming that his face is too beautiful for a peasant like the woman to gaze upon. She leads him to the hole and tricks him into falling in; climbing down after him, the woman pries the mask from the man's face, only to find he's been disfigured by it.
After the woman warns her daughter-in-law about the nature of carnal sin and the threat of purgatory, a "demon" appears in the grass, repeatedly terrifying the young woman and preventing her from visiting her lover. The demon, however, is merely the mother-in-law, who has donned the mask in an attempt to remain in control. She soon learns a lesson in karma, however, and discovers that giving in to rage can eventually turn you into a real monster.
Writer/director Kaneto Shindo based the story of Onibaba (1964, "Demon Woman") on a Japanese folktale created to reinforce the idea of faith and obedience in women and with this film, he has essentially created a folktale of his own. To talk about the endless layers of symbolism at work in this tale of lust, anger, jealousy, rage, and the nature of evil would take a treatise.
We can start, of course with that big, gaping, near-endless hole into which the women lead wayward men, men who plummet to their deaths. Freudian much? Make no mistake though, these women are desperate to survive- when they spot a puppy (at least, it looked like a puppy), they pounce and practically tear it apart on the spot. They kill because they're operating merely on instinct- if they didn't, they would die. The samurai, however, are in the business of sanctioned murder, and their allegiances are tentative at best. Upon his return, Hachi relates his tale of switching sides after being captured- then he plain up and deserted. Who, then, if anyone, is more noble? Are the men victims of female lust? Or is it simply a matter of desperate times and even more desperate measures?
Then there is the jealousy, the rage, and the idea of being punished for one's sins, all bound up in the demon mask, which marks the the countenance of those who wear it with scars signifying their inner corruption. The mother seethes at the thought of her daughter-in-law's desires, her own desires left unchecked as she's considered "too old". She's fearful of what will become of her should the young woman leave, for their bond died along with Kichi. Her jealousy and longing drive her to become the personification of evil, though she insists to the end that she's not a demon, but a human being.
Onibaba is one haunting, beautiful, angry film. The score, at times, assaults the audience with relentless drum beats and horns. The characters are all filled with a rage that manifests in everything they do, from pounding laundry to attacking their food to sex that is eroticism wrapped in violence. Dissatisfaction and hunger- in every sense of the word- clings to everyone like sweat. At its core, it's simply a beautiful glimpse into the ugly side of life.
Film Club Coolies, y'all!
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