ONIBABA | FILM REVIEW & ANALYSIS
Updated: Mar 13, 2022
The Demon Women who echoed Kaneto Shindo's agony of war
Director: Kaneto Shindô
Cast: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satô, Taiji Tonoyama
Two warriors on the run lie low in a tallgrass field. One carries the other, both are exhausted. Trampling hooves thunder on nearby roads. Concealed by the grasslands, the two swordsmen collapse as the ominous breath of galloping beasts draws further away.
Between the straws, two feline predators await. The moment of opportunity is here. Silently, they circle in on their target. Empty stomachs make the tallgrass field as perilous as any battleground, and dog-tired fighters are easy prey.
From out of nowhere, swift spears put the spent men out of their misery. As soon as their final sighs whisper, they are stripped, dragged and dropped into a dark pit in the middle of the grassland, never to be heard from again.
Compared to horror films of our age, Onibaba is a walk in the park. In 1964, however, two topless women murdering unsuspecting samurais like flies was rather controversial, to say the least.
Before long, the exploitative Onibaba got notorious. Some even argue that the provocative subject matter and the sexual undertones were a precursor to the J-horror movement in late 90s Japan.
However, Onibaba had its issues in the production department. Compared to its infamous reputation, it appears somewhat overrated. That being said, it holds up well over time. Apparently, the demonic story of desperation and lust had no expiration date.
Introducing Kaneto Shindô
Onibaba marks a turning point in Shindô’s career. 14 years earlier, he had broken off his engagement with Shochiku Studios and established his own film company called Kindai Eiga Kyôkai. The first Kindai-films were social commentaries that barely kept the company afloat.
Onibaba marked a shift in focus, from community to individual, and from social critique to exploration of human desires. It was a lot more personal, since it reflected Shindô’s experiences in WWII, as a soldier in the Japanese navy.
Shindô was born (1912) and died (2012) in Hiroshima. Due to financial troubles, he left his farmers family in 1928 and found a new «home» at Shochiku Studios in Tokyo. There, he worked alongside Yasujirô Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi until he was drafted in 1944.
When he returned – one of six survivors from a troop of one hundred men – his hometown was demolished, and his younger sister was dying of radiation sickness. After her passing, he went back to work for Shochiku, but not for long.
In the postwar era, the large film studios were instructed by the government/US occupation forces to make jolly escapist flicks to boost morale. Shindô was among the first Japanese directors to oppose such control when he left Shochiku to form his own film company.
In essence, Onibaba – meaning «the demon hag» – is a period drama with elements of horror, erotica, and theatrical undertones inspired by Noh theater. It was originally released in 1964 in Japan, 1965 in USA, and 1968 in the UK after being heavily censored by BBFC.
Inspired by a Buddhist parable that Shindô was told as a child, the story was set in early 1300s Japan. Between the lines it was meant to reflect the trauma and disfigurement caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Onibaba has been criticized for its graphic sexuality and hit-or-miss cinematography. Over the years, its notoriety slowly turned to reverence, and finally to respect. More than 50 years later, it still holds its own, and has earned its status as an important part of Japanese film history.
Spread Out Thin | The Plot in Onibaba
The cinematography might be repetitive and somewhat sloppy, but the narrative is a much bigger problem. The nature of Onibaba is low-cost production leaning on exploitation. Inconsistent cinematography is to be expected, but it also demands functional storytelling.
The plot is simple, but effective, at least for a while. In a war-torn Japan, a mother and daughter-in-law are forsaken by their son/husband, with only each other to rely on. In order to survive, they attack and backstab every man they can find and loot them for goods.
One day, a deserting neighbor returns from the battlefield. Soon enough, he gets interested in the young girl. This makes the elderly mother-in-law very anxious. If left alone, her chances for survival are slim. Shortly thereafter, the young girl initiates a nocturnal relationship with the returning neighbor.
The older lady becomes desperate to regain the man-slaughtering and profitable equilibrium. As such, she starts to manipulate her daughter-in-law by dressing up like a demon who punishes girls for their lustful ways. The concept is intriguing, but ultimately held back by an underdeveloped narrative.
Stronger dialogue would have helped the storytelling a lot. There are some instances of well-written dialogue throughout the film, but to a large extent, the narrative rests on the unspoken word. The combination of lacking dialogue and sloppy cinematography is unfortunate.
Absent dialogue is countered with slow-churning momentum. To some extent, it works, but the characters’ recurring actions make reading between the lines predictable and tedious in the long run. It’s not so interesting to see the young girl running through the reeds to her lover’s hut for the nth time, no matter how topless she is.
A Production for Acquired Tastes
Onibaba was a studio film with a substantial budget, but it still had a lot in common with exploitation films. The topic was gritty, but much of the gruesomeness was hidden in the shadows, while sex and violence were key storytelling factors.
At the time of its release, the film community didn’t give much love to such movies. Over time, though, exploitation films have gained a lot more respect from both critics and the public, much like Onibaba.
The filming took place in 1964, in a susuki-grass field in Chiba prefecture. The location scout certainly chose well. The combo of a haunting location, sparse sound design, and gritty cinematography created a distinct an interesting atmosphere.
In fact, I would argue that the cinematography is a strong point in Onibaba. If taken for what it is, and not compared to the perfectly polished period dramas of its time, the expression of the film is quite original. Perhaps this is why it never went out of style.
The juxtaposition of open prairie long shots and susuki-grass close-ups add a haunting sense of confusion. The noir-like illumination at night, contrasted by stark dry lighting at day, is like undulations between vulnerability and desperation.
The most critique-worthy part of the production was done in the editing department.
The emotional distress of the two protagonists is underlined by the sparse, yet effective score. The rough chiming of wind instruments and rhythmic beating of drums effectively transfers a feeling of duress to the audience.
The casting was well-done, even though the acting became rather theatrical at times. When considering the extremity of the situation and the desperation these characters deal with, the strong expressions of emotions aren’t too far-fetched after all.
In this respect, it should be noted that Shindô was part of the so-called New Wave of Japanese Cinema. In the 60s, these filmmakers experimented heavily with the film medium. Taking inspiration directly from theatrical art forms or abstract music was not unheard-of.
Instances of overacting doesn’t take anything away from Onibaba. The most critique-worthy part of the production was done in the editing department. The previously mentioned, repetitive storytelling makes the film drag out for too long in too many places.
From a subjective standpoint, experimentation with the visual expression did not amount to more than amusing anecdotes for my inner film nerd to muse about. The exploration of sexuality, human desire, and the reflections on a society dealing with the nuclear aftermath and roaring modernization left a much bigger impression.
Critical Reception of Onibaba
Japanese new wave filmmakers explored the art of film and opposed filmmaking conventions. They rebelled against censorship, conformity, and in Shindô’s case, against a society who inflicted nuclear war on him and his family.
Onibaba was a very personal film for Shindô, but also, its social commentary got somewhat lost in translation. As noted by Brian Eggert over at Deep Focus Review, «Onibaba has a rich, if obscured, vein of political fury, though it’s remembered more for its supernatural elements».
Renowned Japanese film historian Donald Richie also questioned the impact of Onibaba’s message. He said that the film was too loaded with naked bodies and sex for anyone to notice anything else.
The fact that Onibaba has stayed relevant for more than 50 years
indicates an impact the extends beyond shock and horror.
In this day and age, the sexuality in Onibaba is about as shocking as reruns of Sex and the City, but the message remains strong. Shindo had felt the toils of war, and it remained a recurring theme in his films. The fact that Onibaba has stayed relevant for more than 50 years indicates an impact the extends beyond shock and horror.
Onibaba’s stamina lends credence to the critics who argue that its message must have been unmistakable to the Japanese audience of its time. About the massage in Onibaba, Shindo said that the survival of man is sustained by the fundamental force of sexual energy.
Between the Tallgrass Straws | Onibaba Analysis
From Shindo’s point of view, the individual instinct for survival connects to larger issues, such as class consciousness and social existence. The upper echelons of society are hardly mentioned in Onibaba. The leaders and their ruling ways are not in focus. Instead, the consequences of their actions are reflected in the grim disfigurement of the lower classes.
The people are not the only ones to suffer in the war-torn land. The atmosphere of despair is everywhere. From the sharp, whipping susuki-grass, to the unforgiving sunlight that fries the plains. Peace and harmony are nowhere to be found in Shindo’s land.
The older woman uses the mask of the demon in an attempt to control «her subjects». Ultimately, her actions backfire, as the mask melts her face away. The land forced her to kill and drop men into a dark pit. When her intentions shift from survival to control, she is severely punished.
If one thing can be read from this, it is that nothing is ever black and white in life. The grey areas of morality colors every twist and turn in this tale. For its time, Onibaba drew a liberal line between good and bad, when condoning free sexuality and violent means of survival. As such, Shindo appears an advocate for free will, and condemning of societal control.
As a victim, the old lady could survive.
When she put on the mask of an agitator, the consequences were fatal.
The woman’s disfigured face was inspired by Shindo’s experience with radiation sickness, but the broader message of the film is up for debate. Was Japan pushed into a corner in WWII? Was the empire forced to kill to survive, like the two women in Onibaba?
What about the face-melting demon mask? Was it the image of an inflicting America, Japan the instigator, or the Gods themselves? Shindo didn’t point fingers at anyone or anything but the consequences of malicious power struggles.
In 1964, when Onibaba was released, Japan was going through one of the fastest modernizations in human history. It was a tumultuous time. People had to adjust to survive. Many traditional values and ideas were challenged, like religious beliefs, political views, morality, and sexuality. If nothing else, Onibaba appears to be a product of its time.
Shindo stood up for his own liberty, but he didn't crucify anyone in the process. And how could he? The grey areas of human morality are often inexplicable, especially in times of war. Shindo didn't put blame, he merely painted an image of the atrocity that comes with power plays and attempts at human control, be it by warfare or manipulation of your fellow man.
Influence of the Demon | Onibaba in Other Films
As for Onibaba’s impact on Japanese filmmaking, some sources claim that it was a precursor to modern J-horror films. Film researcher Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano argues the opposite however: «Such connections only seem plausible once the film is wrenched from its historical materiality.»
Just like the Japanese horror classic Kwaidan – released one year later by the same Toho Studios – Onibaba is not directly comparable to many other films. It probably had some sort of subliminal effect on filmmakers of Japanese horror, but direct connections are hard to find.
A handful of filmmakers have referenced Onibaba, though. The most famous hint is found in The Exorcist (1973). Director William Friedkin took inspiration from the mask in Onibaba when he created the white-faced demon in The Exorcist, aka «Captain Howdy».
Final Verdict for Onibaba
What it all comes down to in the end, is whether Shindo succeeded in balancing new wave experimentation and entertainment value. He made quite a few artistic choices that affected the overall storytelling.
The aforementioned repetition, the reliance on body language, and the many nude sequences – which really wasn’t necessary to tell the tale – all seems to conflict slightly with effective storytelling and the overall plausibility of the story.
That being said, Onibaba is a film unlike any other. So much so, that anyone interested in the history of Japanese cinema should see it at least once. The level of suspense is maintained well-enough to entertain first time viewers from start to end. The replay value seems to diminish each time around, however.
Asian Movie Pulse: Film Review: Onibaba (1964) by Kaneto Shindo
Criterion: Onibaba: Black Sun Rising
Deep Focus Review: Onibaba
Signal Horizon Magazine: Onibaba and the Horrible Dangers of Policing Female Desire
The Guardian: Kaneto Shindo – Master of Japanese cinema
The Guardian: Sex, death and long grass in Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba
The Japan Times: Remembering Kaneto Shindo