Onibaba aka Devil Woman
Directed by: Kaneto Shindô
Starring: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satô, Jûkichi Uno
One of the best movies I've seen in a while, Kaneto Shindô's "Onibaba" ("Devil Woman") is a masterpiece of horror and political allegory. The film is set during a seemingly endless war in medieval Japan. A old(er) woman and her daughter-in-law live on capturing unsuspecting samurai, killing them, taking their possessions and throwing their bodies in a deep hole in the ground. Suddenly, Hachi, a friend of the woman's son (and the younger woman's husband) return after fleeing the war and tells them his companion is dead. He soon starts to court the young woman, and she quickly gives in to his advance, which makes her mother-in-law angry, jealous, frustrated and wanting revenge. One night, she catches a samurai general that wears a demon mask. She descends in the hole where she threw him and takes it off. The samurai's looks eerily similar to a victim of Hiroshima's. The old woman then puts on the mask every night and cleverly terrorizes her daughter-in-law into thinking a demon is sent to punish her for her carnal sins.
The first 10 minutes, which are speechless, set up the tone for the rest of the picture. Were it not for these visually fascinating and gripping first minutes, I probably would've found the rest of the picture somewhat boring. But this movie has great pacing and achieves a lot through music, creepy shots of the wind blowing through the reeds and interesting, almost avant-garde visual compositions. Kaneto Shindô is very clever in using visual motifs and accentuating the drama (or the horror) by using details and/or props (such as the demon mask, the tree which the old woman explicitly embraces at one point, the clothing or lack thereof etc.). Every shot in which we see the hole which becomes the grave of so many unsuspecting victims, has something unsettling about it, daring us to question its true meaning, but reminding us it might be too terrifying. Even if the movie may seem slow, the last half and hour is very rewarding, offering genuinely creepy/scary moments, culminating with the random and pointless death of Hachi and the young woman unmasking a disfigured old woman.
"Onibaba" has many elements of a supernatural horror (with demons and ghosts and such), but whether there really is anything supernatural about it is pretty ambiguous. We are left to wonder why does the mask disfigure those who wear it longer. However, the horrors that the movie alludes to are very real. It's statements about war and the dehumanization that ensues from it are unavoidable. The film also breaks new ground as far as the portrayal of on-screen sexuality is concerned. There is a lot of partial frontal nudity in the picture, which is very unusual, even for an international, art-house picture in the '60s. A very dream-like sequence has Hachi and the young woman celebrating their love by running nude through the reeds and in the shallow water of the nearby river, scaring away the egrets.
"Onibaba" is a unique movie that makes use of a legend and pretends to be something of a regular Japanese ghost story (and, also, somewhat of a mainstream attraction), while making subtle, but firm comments about human nature and the changes in the society of its time.