Two days ago, on April 22nd was Japanese director Kaneto Shindo’s birthday. The first movie I had seen of the director was The Children of Hiroshima, which is entirely different from Onibaba and is more direct and realistic about the sufferings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima perhaps because it was made in 1952 very close to the tragedy. Instead Onibaba although about modern events sits on the framework of the past.
I had seen the movie, Onibaba, referenced here and there and was curious about it. Since horror is really not my genre I had been hesitant in the past (because I am a scarredy-cat that’s why, not because they are beyond my taste). So finally today I had the chance to watch the movie.
Japan has an old and enduring culture of horror stories. When I first came across it I was not very keen to check it out. You see, my knowledge of horror stories comes from the recent set of horror movies that focus more on supernatural entities and gore.
While I enjoy a good story here and there, for the most part I stand at “from the time I discovered what monstrosities humans could commit, I stopped being scared of the monster under my bed.” But it is by sheer accident that I discovered the movie, Ugetsu, which has certainly piqued my interest in this genre. Onibaba is a film followed by that. Like Ugetsu, Onibaba is also a jidaigeki, meaning a period drama. While it is a period drama, this story is an analogy for the modern war, and especially the world wars which destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Onibaba, the movie is set in fourteenth century Kyoto, where wars between factions of samurais has led to a civil unrest. The story is centered on two peasant women who are pushed to manage on their own, as their son has left for a war. One of them is the older woman, and the other is her daughter-in-law. The film portrays their struggle for satisfying their most natural instincts. While hunger remains a constant struggle and no one hesitates to kill.
While hunger is not hardly met, sex becomes another struggle which for the younger woman is a matter of instinct, it is a matter of survival for the older woman. While there are few who could actively pursue the daughter during the wartime, the return of their dead son’s friend starts a challenge for the woman. She is forced to watch her daughter in law being drawn to the new man and fears that this would leave her alone.
the character of Onibaba is drawn from old Japanese folklore, which means a “demon woman” or an evil hag. The story itself had emerged out of the Kyoto region. An Onibaba is a woman who feasts on the flesh of a young pregnant woman and is depicted as carrying a knife or spindle. There are many alternative stories. The Onibaba of the movie is inspired from a Buddhist fable. What I loved about Onibaba is how myth is easily woven into such a realistic story.
The wilderness is a very potent symbol used throughout the movie. A wilderness is a sign that the soil is fertile, not barren, however it also depicts that no one can be bothered to look after it. It is also a projection of the people living in it. It is possible the older woman is not that old at all but looks older due to the extreme poverty. Her own loneliness she can share only with a tree that is standing barren in the wilderness.
The mask of the devil is yet another symbol that in a single scene conveys the real villain of the story, that is those samurais. The samurai is supposed to be a gallant and royal person, but underneath the mask is a rotten person. This “losing face” by losing the mask we realise has happened to quite a few people in the story’s setting.
Although the element of magic and myth is present in the movie, it does not take away from its stark reality. The woman becoming an Onibaba is due to necessity more than anything evil inside her.
Like me, if you have hated the horror genre, you should definitely check out Onibaba, definitely a classic fare.