In 1933, Kaneto Shindo found his calling in life and decided to pursue a career in the film industry. In less than two years, he was a scriptwriter in Tokyo, beginning to collaborate with some of the most influential filmmakers in pre-war Japan. As WWII consumed the nation, he was drafted into the navy with a group of 100 other men who were dolled out to different divisions based on a lottery. Kaneto was one of 6 men who were not assigned combat positions and spent the war cleaning out a theater being used by officers. He and the 5 other military custodians were also the only soldiers of the 100 to live to see Japan surrender to the Allied forces. With no possessions besides his military uniform, which he promptly traded for cigarettes, he returned to the film studio he once worked for, now abandoned, and read unfilmed movies scripts tucked away in the empty offices.
Shindo would go on to become a prolific, celebrated, and extremely varied artist producing work up until 2011, but the war and the horror and devastation that brought it to its end would never leave him and cast a very long shadow over much of his work. Arguably his most celebrated work, Children of Hiroshima (1952), directly addresses people surrounding the aftermath of the bomb as they struggle, suffer, and die due to political forces greater than anyone in the titular city combined.
Onibaba (1964) takes this same passion for this theme of survival and reveals the deeper shadow behind an already darkened subject. In arguably his most genuinely frightening picture, Shindo traces a direct line between the struggles of the victims of Hiroshima to the vicious desperation of peasants during a civil war in feudal Japan in the 14th Century. Two women, joined together by a single man, a son to one, a husband to another, struggling without him in a small hut lost in a sea of grass as war wages around them. The women murder samurai separated from their armies and sell their equipment for sacks of cheap food. Their twisted routine is disrupted by the return of their son/husband’s friend and neighbor, who brings news of his death and his obvious desire for his late friend’s widow.
The film, from a Western standpoint, dances along the border between traditional Japanese folklore and the unnerving psychological imagery of early German expressionist horror. Shindo has cited the Buddhist fable yome-odoshi-no-men (bride-scaring mask) as his primary inspiration for the narrative. The tale tells of an older woman who scares a younger one away from a temple by wearing a demonic mask and frightening her. The older woman is then cursed with the hideous mask as it firmly affixed itself to her face. When she finally was able to remove it, the mask took the flesh of her face along with it.
A retelling of the fable occurs in the third act of the film, after the older woman murders a haunted, enigmatic samurai who constantly wears a hideous demon mask. The supernatural origins of the both the masks design and the fable behind it are brought forth as the woman has to descend into her body disposal pit to retrieve it, figuratively entering the hell of her own creation to retrieve the item that will be her doom. The mask itself is known in traditional Japanese Noh theater as the Hannya mask and represents the anguished souls of women who became lost in jealousy. Shindo demonstrates a strong knowledge of Noh theater by presenting the mask from extreme angles, altering the mood depicted in the mask with each new viewpoint in the same fashion that kabuki actors have done so for centuries.
Despite the fact that a demon plays a very large part in the narrative, the film makes a clear distinction where the entity actually presides, within the three worn-down, troubled minds in the marshlands. This is how the film evokes so much power from a creature that the audience is keenly aware doesn’t exist in the reality of the film world. There is nothing overtly supernatural to pull away from the horror of the human condition. Everything out of this world is followed in the expressionist tradition of remaining completely within the hallucinatory confines of the faulty human consciousness.
Sex is a very invasive and powerful force for the three central characters of the film, as the young couple hurl themselves on each other in a love-starved frenzy. The same kind of sex crazed hysteria that would mark the destruction of tormented minds is transformed here into an uncontrollable but natural and rewarding frenzy that provides a manic energy to the performances of the trio of protagonists as well as to the film itself. The fact that sex isn’t worthy of punishment in the films view puts it in direct opposition with nearly the entirety of the horror film cannon and is partially why Onibaba is so difficult to define.
Ultimately the film is about the extreme lengths people will go in order to survive. The disruptive sexual urges of the young couple is a byproduct of that primordial urge to continue to chain of life, the ultimate form of survival. Yet the film does not condemn the older woman from trying to prevent the trysts entirely either, although it certainly punishes her with horrifyingly gruesome detail. Her desire to keep the younger woman around her in order to continue her desperate survival is just as natural and instinctive as the younger couples desire for each other. It is the warriors fighting and dying beyond the grassland that is condemned by the film, ultimately. The film paints them as ideological men wrapped up in their honor and glory, bringing hell upon the Earth in the process and they are cut down at their weakest and most vulnerable points by those that indirectly suffer from their actions.
There is much discussion in the film of the surreal dark events happening in nearby Kyoto. “A horse gave birth to a calf. The sun rose black in the sky,” says the returned warrior to the cloistered women, as the seven foot tall grasses undulate endlessly in the darkness around them. While it is doubtful that those events are occurring even in the eternal logic of the film, the uncivilized and violent desperation of the people within the film are the very representation of these disturbing supernatural scenes in their own right. Shindo put it best himself, solidifying the central theme that in their most desperate points humanity will present its best and worst behavior simultaneously, “People are both the Devil and God, and are truly mysterious.”
Onibaba: Black Sun Rising, by Chuck Stephens
Ikite iru kagiri Watashi no Rirekisho, by Kaneto Shindo