Review: Onibaba (1964, Shindo)


Onibaba (Shindo, 1964)

Completely removed from war-torn Japan and living in an infinite field of susuki grass, a mother and daughter-in-law kill samurai to survive. They have been reduced to acts of savagery against samurai from all sides. They are their own side. There are no rules. It is in this claustrophobic environment that sex, repression, jealousy and violence reign. Using the essential and overwhelming element of susuki grass, director Kaneto Shindo creates a world unique unto itself, overwhelming in minimalist specificity.

Onibaba is a stark and haunting film by Kaneto Shindo that highlights the desperation and famine of peasants left behind in war and the animalism that stems from it. A mother (Nobuko Otawa) and daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) await the return of their son and husband Kaito. Without the means to survive on their own, they have taken up killing. They murder the samurai that find themselves lost and tired from the susuki. Together, they steal the samurai’s belongings and sell them. Their interaction is based in necessity rather than a mutual bond. Kaito’s friend and fellow samurai Hachi (Kei Sato) soon returns with bad news (which he reveals with near indifference); Kaito is dead. In the aftermath of this news, the daughter-in-law finds herself quickly drifting towards Hachi’s advances, as the mother clings onto her only remaining connection and faces her repressed sexual desire.

At first, the mother and daughter-in-law are defined by their famine. As the film continues, it becomes clear that the mother is a surprisingly complex character. She has a hard exterior which remains prevalent throughout most of the film. In the latter half, there are moments that provide deeper insight into her. Nobuko Otawa shows us the layers of loneliness and repressed sexual desire that exist underneath her temperamental attitude. After seeing her daughter-in-law and Hachi having sex, Otawa frantically clings to a nearby tree; it is all she has in a moment of overwhelming longing. In another scene, late in the film, she claims “I’ve never really seen anything beautiful since the day I was born”. The line itself is a solemn one but Otawa angrily delivers it, revealing a need to cover up tragic self-realizations with something stronger than the implications that come with saying it.

The use of the susuki grass is vital to the film for several reasons. Shindo and cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda shoot the grass in long shots which swallow up the actors. Much more often, the grass is filmed in close-up. These shots are either sped up or slowed down. The effect is that, in addition to seeing how the grass envelopes the characters, it also envelopes the audience, aligning us with how the characters’ feel in their environment. Every time the daughter-in-law goes out at night to visit Hachi, there are shots of her running through the grass to get to him. These scenes physically represent desire as she joyously runs against the grass to fulfill her needs. The grass also allows the mother and daughter-in-law to murder. It also gets the mother out of a dangerous situation late in the film. The susuki grass is vital for thematic, atmospheric and narrative reasons.

The characters in Onibaba live in a claustrophobic and cut-off world and Shindo explores the animalism and essential human elements that arise through the desperate circumstances of the characters. Hikaru Hayashi’s score combines an expected Japanese traditionalism with a booming dose the more experimental aspects of jazz. The result is a prehistoric jungle sound that parallels the animalistic themes.

In the final ten minutes, the film reaches its unsettling conclusion. With or without the knowledge that Shindo used the mask (central to the plot) as a symbol for the victims of the Hiroshima bombing, the final reel is hard to shake. His political statement might be melodramatically executed but that is precisely why it works. The director wants to make sure the final image of Onibaba literally jumps out to the audience. His efforts pay off, as the last line of dialogue provides what must surely be one of the great film endings in a consistently first-rate film.

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