A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964)

A dark shocker, with a close kinship to its contemporary, Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964), Onibaba -- which translates as "Demon Hag," and has been released under the titles Devil Woman and The Hole -- takes place in the grasslands alongside a river during a devastating civil war in medieval Japan. A woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) share a hut there. The older woman's son, who was married to the younger woman, has been conscripted into the army. The two women survive by waylaying samurai who have strayed into the tall grasses, killing them, stripping them, and tossing their bodies into a deep sinkhole. They then exchange the armor and weapons for food and supplies. One day, Hachi (Kei Sato), a neighbor who was conscripted into the army along with the older woman's son, returns and tells them that they had both deserted but the son/husband was killed when he tried to steal food from some farmers. Hachi begins to make a play for the young widow, who is soon sneaking out at night to have sex with him, to the older woman's dismay and jealousy. One night, while spying on Hachi and her daughter-in-law, she encounters a lost samurai general (Jukichi Uno) wearing the mask of a demon. When she asks why he is masked, he says that it's to protect his face: He is, he says, extraordinarily handsome, and if she shows him the way out of the grasslands he will reward her by removing the mask. The woman, however, lures the general to the hole and he falls to his death. She climbs down into the hole, which is filled with skeletons, to retrieve his armor and weapons and to remove the mask, which comes off only after great effort, revealing that he is terribly disfigured. She decides to use the mask to frighten the younger woman off from her liaison with Hachi, but with suitably horrifying consequences. Writer-director Kaneto Shindo plays with the fear of female empowerment and sexuality: The hole, like the sandpit in Woman in the Dunes, is a pretty obvious symbol. But Onibaba makes its way around such heavy-handedness with ferociously committed performances and cinematographer Kyomi Kuroda's striking use of its setting. It has an unusual but effective score by Hikaru Hayashi that blends such disparate elements as taiko drums and jazz saxophones.