Onibaba (1964) review

Introduction

Kaneto Shindo was one the first directors to escape the control of the studio system and establish an independent production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai. Yet, the first ten years, his production company, which focused on social commentaries, like Children of Hiroshima (1952), barely kept the company afloat. In 1960, close to bankruptcy, Shindo poured all the financial resources he had left into making the poetic The Naked Island (1960) and successfully saved his company. Three years later, Shindo decided to shift his focus in his films, shifting his focus from the grand problems of class struggle to the individual affected by the political forces and driven by his/her libido (General-note 1). The first film to deal with these problems was Onibaba (1964).

Review

One day, in a large field of swaying grass, two fleeing samurai are ambushed and murdered by an old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her young daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura). The women loot the dead soldiers and drop the near-naked bodies in a dark and deep pit hidden in the sprawling field of susuki grass.

The following day, the women meet up with Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama), a merchant, to sell their loot. He calls their loot junk offers them one bag of millet for. The old woman asks for one bag more for the armour and swords, but Ushi is only willing to give her one bag more if she sleeps with him. She refuses. That night, Hachi (Kei Sato), returns from the war and learn that Kichi, the old woman’s son and the young woman’s husband, has been murdered.   

Onibaba (1964) by Kaneto Shindo

While certain spectators might be dazzled by the unsubtle eroticism that marks Shindo’s Onibaba, spectators able to read between the ‘erotic’ lines will discover in Shindo’s rather unsettling narrative a double-sided critique of (Japanese) society, a Freudian critique of sexual repressive morality as well as a critique of the social ravage the phallic thirst for power creates.     

Concerning the Freudian social critique that structures Onibaba, Shindo explicitly attacks the ‘repressive’ nature of the sexual morality in Japan’s pre-war and post-war society. This morality tries to repress female sexuality and to silence the active sexual desire that marks female subjects.

Shindo evokes the effect of this repressive social act, firstly, via the image of the dark and deep hole. When the ‘well-cultured’ samurai, who are fighting their ‘great’ civil war for power, enter the field of long swaying grasses, they enter a field structured around a repressed and unknown truth. This hidden hole is radically feminine. The hole does not only vaguely resemble the female genital, but also – and this is essential – echoes the truth of her sexual desire a male structured society desperately tries to avoid (Psycho-note 1). The hole of her active sexual desire is something that because it is forced to remain hidden and repressed in society hurts and destroys male and female subjects alike.      

Onibaba (1964) by Kaneto Shindo

The hole of female sexual desire, hidden between the societal grasses, marks our young woman at a subjective level. To better understand this, we need to explore the dynamic between her and Hachi. Hachi lusts for the young widow’s body (Cine-note 1). His desire – and this is important – is beyond any form of romantic feeling or interest in her as subject. It is, in fact, the fantasy of sexually possessing her that makes her so attractive to him and compels him to keep approaching her. The proposal he makes to the older lady of marrying her daughter-in-law is not a confession of his love, but a confession of his growing sexual lust.  

The young widow is, maybe surprisingly, not unmoved by his lustful invitations. Yet, as Shindo avoids exploring her subjective logic, the spectator can only assume she is an active sexual being. What she shows, a sexual hunger that compels her again and again to visit Hachi, is thus what society refuses to give its rightful existence and what society tries to repress in the female subject. She confronts the older woman and the spectator with the dark abyss of her female sexual enjoyment (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2). This confrontation turns the older woman into the protector of the societal demand for feminine sexual repression. This is made evident when she, to curb the unsatisfiable sexual desire of the young widow, tries to install a symbolic rule – if you follow your sexual lust outside wedlock, you will go to Buddhist hell.

Onibaba (1964) by Kaneto Shindo

The critique of the devastating effects of a phallic conflict is underlined by Hachi’s story and by the reality of the living circumstances of our women. Shindo, in fact, delivers a biting commentary on the nature of war. He does not only highlight the fact that common folk are merely expendable paws to be exploited in the upper class’s vain phallic conflict, but also by evoking how wars for power create, in all cases, a social and humanitarian ravage, especially for the poor (Narra-note 3, Narra-note 4). The continued attempts of the older woman to keep the young widow from meeting Hachi can, in this sense, be understood as an attempt to survive this humanitarian ravage.  

What about the Hannya mask? The Hannya mask is meaningful in both dimensions of critique.

For the samurai, the fearful Hannya mask is used as a tool to hide his lack and castration. The mask is exploited as a veil to imply that behind it lies a certain phallic brilliance – i.e. a face so beautiful it will make you feel quaint. In the hands of men of power, the mask thus becomes a tool to play their fantasmatic phallic games. In the hands of the older woman, the mask simply becomes a tool the enforce the societal demand to repress the blossoming of female sexual desire.

The demon mask functions, in a certain way, as a symbol for the problematic elements that blossomed in pre-war Japanese society and still echo in post-war Japanese society. Such kind of society, a society drunk on imperialism and obsessed with repressing female subjectivity, can only lead itself to its own destruction. This truth is already foreshadowed by the statements about the broken state of the country, but revealed, in the most powerful way, by what happens to the face of those who wears the societal demonic mask – i.e. scarred faces echoing the devastating effect of the atom bomb. Yet, Onibaba is not a pessimistic narrative. By evoking the indestructible nature of the sexual drive, Shindo celebrates how, beyond all societal violence, the will to survive, especially among the lower classes, prevails (Narra-note 5).

Onibaba (1964) by Kaneto Shindo

The visual pleasure of the composition of Onibaba is first and foremost function of the visual and the cinematographical dynamism. The choice to set the story within a sea of weeds, so elegantly manipulated by the wind and so brusquely pushed aside by the people who move through them, is a stroke of genius. The poetically moving swaying reeds do not only give the composition a pleasant and poetic dynamism, but also allow Shindo to infuse a feeling of discomfort into his narrative. The visual dynamism is complemented by a cinematographical one. Shindo’s composition, despite being somewhat rough around the edges, masterfully orchestrates static moments and unrushed and swift moving moments into a dynamic and stylish compositional whole. Shindo’s stylish and poetic composing heightens the vibrance of the visuals and ensures that the spectator remains engaged throughout the entire narrative.

Another element that heightens the visual pleasure of the monochrome composition is the thoughtful and dynamic play with light and shadow. While many shots already have a pleasing composition by a great use of avant-gardist use of geometry, the kabuki-inspired play with lightning often emphasizes the beauty of the shot-composition by heightening the visual tension of the shot.

The jazzy music that accompanies the opening sequence is stylish but also, in a certain way, disconcerting – the music beautifully foreshadows the psychological horror and the treat that lingers between the reeds. The more dramatic and traditionally inspired music that flares up at certain points in Onibaba is effective in further emphasizing this threat and in keeping the spectator engaged.

Onibaba (1964) by Kaneto Shindo

Onibaba is a veritable classic. While the overall composition is a bit rough around the edges – echoing the rather rough filming circumstances, the poetic and erotic sensibility of Kaneto Shindo ensures that his composition still succeeds, after all these years, in dazzling the spectator. Shindo also delivers at the level of his narrative. While some spectators might critique the narrative’s simplicity, those spectators able to read between the enticing erotic lines will discover a damning critique of Japanese society.      

Notes

General-note 1: The importance of both is underlined by Kaneto Shindo himself: “Political things such as class consciousness or class struggle or other aspects of social existence really come down to the problem of man alone […]. I have discovered the powerful, very fundamental force in man which sustains his survival and which can be called sexual energy […]. My idea of sex is nothing but the expression of the vitality of man, his urge for survival.” [Wakeman, J. (1988). World Film Directors, Volume 2. The H. W. Wilson Company. pp. 1021–1027.]

Cine-note 1: Shindo beautifully visualizes what is on Hachi’s mind, either by inserting a shot of his lustful look or by emphasizing, via semi-pov shots, the body-element (her breasts, her but) his look is fixated on. This fact that his look fixates on partial body-parts underlines that he solely desires to possess her body sexually.

Psycho-note 1: That the hole is a symbol for the active female libido leads to many interesting conclusions. First, female subjects know about this hole/libido. Secondly, men can, by accident, encounter this libido – i.e. Hachi finds the hole and meets this libido in the young woman. Thirdly, the older woman reveals that what the hole/libido hides is nothing but the dead drive (i.e. skeletons). Lastly, the weeds that hide the hole from the samurai underlines that the higher one’s position is in society, the stronger the repression of active female sexuality is.    

Narra-note 1: Yet, for Hachi, her acceptance is not a mystery at all. For him, her acceptance is a sign that he is attractive for her, a sign that his fantasy of possessing a certain phallic quality has an inkling of truth. 

Narra-note 2: The older woman, after following her daughter-in-law and voyeuristically watching Hachi make love to her, eventually approaches him to offer her body to his sexual lust. While her offer implies that she too has a sexual need, the true purpose of her offering her body is to ensure that Hachi does not run off with the young widow. 

Narra-note 3: The position that our women are put in by the war that rages the land is beautifully underlined by the animal that adorns their clothes: a crab for the old woman and a scallop for the younger. The crab is known to be a scavenger and the scallop is known for being a filter feeder.

Narra-note 4: The long swaying grass can also be interpreted in more general terms. The grass does not only hide the hole of feminine sexuality, but also hide the reality of the lives of the common folk from the men of the upper class caught up in the phallic struggle for power. The ‘upper class’ is blind for both.

Narra-note 5: Shindo – and this is important – is not blaming the mother for her actions – he actually symphatizes with her. He sees her as a blind victim of those who dictate the ideology of society, the upper-classes.

Society-note 1: Onibaba also addresses how the choices made by those in power, from politicians to the upper classes, have effects that reverberate through all layers of the social ladder. The ultimate effect of these choices is seen on the old woman’s horrifically scarred face, the make-up for which was based on the radiation burns of hibakusha.

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