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  • Ravi Swami

"Onibaba" - Dir: Kaneto Shindo - 1964

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

These blog posts aren't strictly according in the order that I viewed the films during the current lockdown, but as I write them down, I'm aware of the fact that my choice of viewing had a lot to do with my mood at the time - in this case it was the sence of hunkering down to watch a film that carries with it a delicious chill and foreboding in the best tradition of a campfire ghost story.

I had seen "Onibaba" ("Trans: "Demon Hag") only once before in the mid 80's (U,K Channel 4) and thanks once again to BFI Player, I could enjoy it again.

It shares aspects in common with other films that are included in the BFI's current excellent Japanese Cinema season and that I'll be reviewing in later posts, most noteably in "Kwaidan" (a portmanteau of supernatural stories) and in "Woman of The Dunes" (karmic retribution and lust), and reflect a strand of folk tales and mythology in Japanese culture, in particular of shape-shifting "Kitsune-tsuki", or "Fox Women", who would lure men to their deaths by seducing them, often in a deserted rural setting.

The setting of "Onibaba" is a vast field of tall reeds, stunningly rendered in contrasty monochrome - inky blacks and stark whites create a graphic quality reminiscent of "Sumi" brush painting.

A mother and daughter eke out a meagre living in a thatched hut in the middle of this reed "ocean" by murdering soldiers who have lost their way and by pushing their bodies into a deep pit, within which they rob the corpses of their armour to sell on to a dealer for money to pay for food. 

It is at the dealer that they are met by a soldier, Hachi, who has returned from war and whose companion was the husband of the woman.

When questioned by the woman, who recognises him, the soldier reluctantly reveals that his companion has been killed, effectively making her a widow and her daughter, fatherless.

Hachi returns to his hovel, also a hut in the reed field, but soon develops an obsession with the womans' daughter after unsuccessfully propositioning her mother - an obsession that soon turns sexual through nightly assignations at the soldiers' hut, against the mothers' wishes.

The story takes a turn when the mother comes across a Samurai wearing an "Oni" mask who has lost his way in the reed field, and after offering to lead him to safety she comes to the conclusion that he is of high rank and therefore his armour would fetch a high price - when probed, his explanation for the mask is that it is to protect his incredibly handsome face.

The woman tricks him into plunging to his death in the pit and immediately tries to remove the mask to see his handsome face but rain has made it stick fast - it eventually comes off revealing a horribly disfigured face underneath.

Driven by a combination of jealousy, rage and sexual frustration the mother then embarks on a mission to punish her wayward daughter and Hashi by using the mask taken from the dead warlord, that has horrifying consequences.

And that's enough spoilers....:)

Karmic retribution and lust often feature in Japanese folk stories and have their basis in Buddhist philosophy and continue to inspire storylines to the present - a good example is Nakajima Atsushi's modern short story "Tiger Poet", a tale about ego and frustrated ambition that leads to a literal physical transformation of the titular character into a pitiful man-eater, that, although set in Medieval Japan, could apply to any age or society.

"Onibaba" is often described as a horror film but that just confines it to a genre - indeed there are horrific aspects to it, from the frightening "Oni" mask to the images of disfigurement, but it's actually a morality tale, which many horror films, choosing instead to capitalise of the sensational aspects of "body-horror" etc, are not.

"Onibaba", Dir: Kaneto Shindo, 1964

BFI Player

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