The hole… deep and dark… its darkness has lasted since ancient times…
With these cryptic, dreadful words, we are introduced to the isolated, morally abandoned realm of Onibaba (1964), written and directed by Kaneto Shindo. Existing somewhere in between period drama and nightmarish folk-horror, Onibaba tells a chilling, sensual tale of loss and desire, mining the depths of necessary, opportunistic inhumanity. Set somewhere in rural Japan during the mid-14th century, a period of civil war, Onibaba demonstrates the effects of conflict on the moral fibre of those struggling to exist outside of battle. Through the fog of war, the whole world becomes a purgatory; a “hell for sinners.” With this expertly crafted, relentlessly bleak little story, Kaneto Shindo charts a descent further into that moral abyss.
Shindo’s endeavour was inspired by an old folk-tale, a Shin Buddhist parable of the ‘yome-odoshi-no men’ (bride-scaring mask) or ‘niku-zuki-no-men’ (mask with flesh attached): in the story, a mother uses a mask to scare her daughter and is punished by the mask sticking to her face. Onibaba tells of an old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her young daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura). While the girl’s husband, Kichi, is away at war, the pair survives by murdering Samurai who travel through their swamp and selling their valuables. They hide the bodies in a deep pit near their home. A neighbour, Hachi (Kei Satô), returns from war, bearing news that Kichi is dead. The old woman is devastated by the death of her son, but the young woman soon begins an affair with Hachi, much to the elder’s disgust.
From the first crash of the film’s score, accompanying the opening titles, Onibaba is a deliberately slow, creeping and deeply unsettling experience. Hikaru Hayashi – a long time collaborator of Shindo’s – provides a score that blends wild free-jazz with frantic, bombastic Taiko drumming. The concoction produces a pummelling, disconcerting musical experience, unlike anything heard previously in cinema. The score is used sparingly, much of the soundtrack consists of sparse environmental ambience: crickets chirping, wind moving through fields, water lapping at the shore. When it pops up, then, Hayashi’s score signals moments of sudden, brutal inhumanity and folkish terror. Its final inclusion during the film’s climax is a thing of abominable beauty; the pummelling Taiko drumming remains, while the jazz instrumentation is abandoned in favour of rhythmic, gurgling human screams.
The sparse nature of Onibaba’s score reflects the empty, isolated feeling of the film’s landscape. The men have been taken away to fight, given no choice – all that remain are the women, the children and the elderly. Hachi laments, “It’s the general’s war, not ours. We don’t know what they were fighting about” – the conflict is one enacted by nobles, but endured and suffered by the poor. Soldiers are ready to switch sides when it offers respite; women at home are prepared to kill to survive.
The film’s opening sequence, in which the two women ambush and kill a pair of samurai, is visually responded to with repugnance. Onibaba opens in a field of tall grass, its enormous blades swaying in the wind – a recurring visual motif throughout the film. When two samurai are lost in the towering field, a spear’s blade – near indistinguishable from the blades of grass – suddenly emerges from the brush. Once the women have killed the samurai, they return to their hut and eat. Shindo’s camera slowly zooms in toward the pair, focusing on their absence of remorse. Without cutting, the camera then reverses the zoom at the same speed, as if to back away in disgust. Callous and uncaring, the women slump into bed, immediately falling asleep.
The women’s crime is all the more disturbing when joined by their lack of remorse. They are unmoved, unemotional – they have clearly done this before. However, as the gravity of their situation is revealed, their necessary acts of inhumanity become regretfully acceptable. A second sequence in which they murder a defenseless samurai in the lake, with the help of Hachi, is somehow less reprehensible – their cold brutality, the harsh logic of the crimes becomes somewhat more understandable as the story goes on. In the beginning, Shindo approaches Onibaba with a tight, intimate and often-uncomfortable camera. The pans are slow and the zooms crawl along at a snail’s pace. Shots often begin with an extreme close-up, assessing each character before pulling out to take stock of the situation. The subject is approached with trepidation: just as we are unsure about the moral standing of the film’s protagonists, so too is Shindo’s lens. “You Steal?” Hachi asks, “Everyone steals when there’s fighting on.” As the narrative progresses, then, so too does the complexity of Shindo’s formal strategy, reflecting the mounting ambiguity of their moral standing.
This complexity builds to a frantic chaos in the film’s climactic sequences; the world of Onibaba becomes a waking nightmare, a hell on earth. Early on, Hachi and the old woman speak of nightmarish horrors they’ve witness – “A horse gave birth to a calf… The sun rose black in the sky, day was dark as night”, “Frost and hail in summer… as if the earth had been turned upside down.” Later, she warns the young woman of a “hell for sinners,” “the terrible mountain of needles, the lake of blood.” Her moral deviations, she warns, will lead her down this path. However, Onibaba already exists in this morally vacuous hell on earth: the mountain of needles is clearly symbolized in the towering fields of grass, Hachi even cuts himself on a blade, leaving a bloody gash; the waters surrounding the women’s home becomes the warned of lake of blood, glutted with the bodies of dead samurai.
Onibaba is relatively simple horror story, built on folk tradition and guiding parable. For all its dark, twisted beauty, Shindo’s film is interesting for its unsettling blend of formal strategy and moral ambiguity. His camera follows the film’s ill-fated protagonists into the abyss – just as his technique reflects the narrative’s moral intricacies, it joins with our own trepidations. Inevitably, Shindo pulls us into the abyss with them.