As beautiful as it is terrifying, Onibaba (1964) is as much an experience as it is a narrative film. That's not to say it's too artsy for its own good. Every minute is entertaining, moving as swiftly as "Kichi's Wife" (Jitsuko Yoshimura) running through the reeds for late night encounters with her lover, Hachi (Kei Sato), urgency heightened by every beat of composer Hikaru Hayshi's percussion.
She runs because her window of opportunity is not open for very long. Her mother-in-law, "Kichi's Mother" (Nobuko Otowa) sleeps at night and would not approve of her relationship with Hachi. Yes, her son has been reported killed during one of Japan's 14th-century civil wars, but she's either not convinced that he won't return home one day, or believes that wedding vows last a lifetime, even if one of the spouses dies.
Kichi's Mother knows about these encounters, though, and when words don't deter her daughter-in-law, she escalates her methods for punishing her "sinful lust." This leads to conversations that, for me, are at the heart of Onibaba. When Wife asks, "Are there really demons?" Mother responds, "Why, did you see one?" Then, Mother tells her not to worry, "they won't come after us… unless we've been bad."
Mother knows the answer to her question; she's been posing as a demon to scare Wife back into their hut in the middle of the night. She manipulates Wife with a question for which she already knows the answer, then passive-aggressively plants the idea that Wife is doing something wrong. If the "demon" doesn't get her, the guilt surely will! For any newlywed, forget demons; this woman is the mother-in-law from hell.
All of this takes a back seat in most synopses of Onibaba, which highlight the other part of the two women's relationship. By day, they work together to kill soldiers in order to steal their possessions and exchange them for grain so they can eat. Well, that's on good days. If human traffic is low, they listen for barking dogs and take more drastic measures to obtain sustenance. It's a dark, brutal world in which the women live.
As they increasingly spend time apart, Mother meets a samurai wearing a demon mask, who asks her to show him the road to Kyoto. He claims to wear the mask because he fears marring his handsome face and Mother wants to see it because she has never seen anything beautiful. He insults her by saying it's not a face to show peasants, and soon finds his fate at the bottom of the deep hole in which the women drop their victims.
She's barely able to remove the mask from his broken body, and when she does, part of his face comes with it. That's something she should have remembered before she decides to wear the mask herself, masquerade as a demon, and frighten Wife on her midnight excursions. However, then she wouldn't learn a lesson by the end, and the ultimate revelation wouldn't expose the true nature of a demon.
Onibaba doesn't feel like a horror movie, but the spoiler-filled descriptions I've provided clearly prove that it is one. From murderous women to death masks to demons, it's psychologically heavy. The fact that it plays more like a drama means it's possibly the most effective kind of horror movie, one that you can't easily identify because it's so realistically entwined among real life and real issues. That's not even mentioning the true horrors from the history of mankind that it exposes.
Written by Kaneto Shindo
Directed by Kaneto Shindo
Starring Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Sato, Jukichi Uno
Released November 21, 1964 (Japan)
RT 103 min.
Home Video The Criterion Collection (DVD & Blu-ray)