One word you should know when watching “Onibaba” is “bukufu.” The word is Japanese, but I promise if you search it you won’t have to clear your history. I’ll save you the trouble though (in case you’re afraid to look it up), and tell you that “bukufu” originally referred to the tent or housing of a military General or Shogunate. Later, during the Kamakura, very brief Kenmu and longer Muromachi period (the film takes place at the beginning of this period) “…it came to mean the seat of the Shogunal Military Government; later, all forms of military government.”
Hachi, one of the three main characters, returns as a warrior deserter. He references the two warring sides in the battle for land and power. Kusunoki Masahige fought for Emperor Go-Daigo and his Court against Shogunate Ashikaga, who fought for the (as he felt, “marginalized”) warrior class. Both sides seemed to be hard up for fighters as Hachi says he was offered the opportunity to live after capture as long as he changed his allegiance. Hachi’s moral ambiguity comes through loud and clear in his re-telling of the events, beautifully illustrating his sense of self-preservation.
The music, though tension building, does not seem to be contemporary with the time and events in the movie. The drums are adrenaline inducing, but it is a far cry from the Zen Buddhist chants that would have been more prevalent at that time. Buddhist chants can be just as scary and tension building when accompanied by an Oni mask.
Onibaba, as it says in the wiki, literally translates to “Demon Hag.” Director Kaneto Shindo was inspired to make the film as an exploration of human sexuality. It is, at its base level, about the rejection of an old woman in favor of a younger one. It’s an interesting take on society, our obsession with youth, and our willingness to do away with anything old aged, or outdated.
Kaneto Shindo was heavily inspired by one of the (if not “the”) formative events in his life, which was the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At thirty-three he had been a soldier in the war, and after it was over, returned to a life of film. The experience never left him though, and he became the first filmmaker to address the bomb on the silver screen in his 1953 film “Children of Hiroshima” which premiered that year at the Cannes Film Festival. Years after that movie, Shindo’s films still echoed the magnitude of the tragedy in little things like the facial disfigurement the Oni mask leaves on its victims, which slightly resemble burns from extreme radiation exposure.
It’s worth noting that 1964 was a time in Japan when affluence was returning to the people, and economic stability was taking hold in the island nation for the first time since before the war. The economic recovery was heralded by the country hosting the ’64 summer Olympics, which also lead to a flurry of city revitalization, modernization, and an expansion of their public transportation. Japan had just opened its borders to international trade, and negotiated with foreign powers to reduce tariffs on Japanese exports. The change in trade laws made it possible for Japan to become the world’s second largest producer in terms of Gross National Product a mere four years later. These developments stand in stark contrast to the reality of the post war Japan Shindo was living in. Even when things were looking up for his country, Shindo was still exploring the hardships war brings to the civilian class. Onibaba shows the dehumanization that settles into everyone when his or her survival is on the line. It begs the question: how far would you be willing to go to feed yourself?
At a glace, Onibaba might seem dated. Old. Definitely not a horror film because it’s not “scary.” At the root of all horror films (the good ones anyway, e.g. 28 Days Later) run the same themes of survival and family. What’s scarier than not knowing if you’ll live to the next day? What’s more upsetting than having people you can trust turn into two very different kinds of monsters? What’s more instinctual, primal, and survivalist than fighting for food, sex or even power over another? Shindo’s film most certainly is scary in that sense. It is a comment on what war does to people, and what they are willing to do to each other in times of war. It says as much about post-war 14th century Japan as it does about post World War II Japan. The bukufu’s of the 1300’s and the armies of the 1940’s fought for the Japan they wanted, while the people living there had to fight simply to survive through it.
Frederic, Louis. Japan Encyclopedia. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, April 30th 2005. Paperback.
Hitoshi, Chiba. “1964: An Olympic Year.” The Japan Journal. Aug. 2005. Web. Wed. April 10th 2013. http://www.japanjournal.jp/tjje/show_art.php?INDyear=05&INDmon=08&artid=b724a1bfbad09ffe06fbcd7cbf2b389c
Wallace, E. “Muromachi and Ashikaga: Flourishing Culture and Political Disintegration.” http://www.samurai-archives.com/ . Online. Tue. April 9th 2013.
NA. The History of Japanese Music. NP. Web. Tue. April 8th 2013. http://www.farsidemusic.com/historyJa.html#JAPANESEMUSICBEFOREMEIJI1862