Onibaba, which I think literally means “demon old lady,” is a theatrical fable of a film. It’s a small story with minimal dialogue, a tiny cast, and only a few sets. Nonetheless, it aspires to, and I believe succeeds at, being insightful about the absolute worst aspects on the human condition. I’m talking about starvation and desperation, lust and jealousy, opportunism and selfishness – the aspects of ourselves we’d like to overcome, laid bare in a time of survival. But is it any good?
Somewhere in Japan during the 14th century, a middle-aged woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) are trying to survive while a civil war rages on. They live in a hut in a marsh and, unable to farm with all the men gone, have made it this far by killing soldiers who happen to wander nearby and selling their armor and weapons for food. Their precarious situation is made even less secure when Hachi (Kei Satō), one of their neighbors returns from the war and tells them that the young woman’s husband has died.
The middle-aged woman makes it obvious she despises Hachi, despite that, he is flirty with the young woman and she is receptive. She starts sneaking out to sleep with Hachi every night, which the middle-aged woman notices immediately. She’s upset, mostly, it seems, because she’s afraid that if the young woman leaves to go with Hachi, she won’t be able to kill soldiers alone. In an act of desperation, she tries to seduce Hachi, then pleads with him when he says he’s not interested, to no avail.
One night, while the young woman is with Hachi, a masked samurai appears and corners the middle-aged woman, who kills him by tricking him into falling into an evil hole. That’s something I should have mentioned earlier, there’s an evil hole in the middle of the reeds. The two women use it to dump the bodies of the soldiers they kill. Anyway, after recovering the masked samurai’s equipment, the middle-aged woman hatches a diabolical scheme to keep her family together.
The supernatural is mostly at the periphery of Onibaba, more part of the mood and atmosphere than the plot. When Hachi first returns, the women explain how in the middle of the summer snow and frost had killed their crops. He counters by telling how horrible the war is, but also about other ill omens that are happening, like a black sun rising and a horse giving birth to a calf. Obviously, war has upset the natural order of things. What’s worse, Hachi makes it clear that most of the soldiers are like him, men forced to fight, with no loyalty to either side. They are all just pawns in a game played by generals, totally expendable.
In those dark times, people are forced to their most basic state. That’s why the women, and later Hachi, are so willing to kill to survive. We see that full suits of armor and swords only gets them a meager amount of food, which everyone gobbles up as soon as they can. At one point a dog wanders by and the women immediately pounce on it, swiftly killing and eating it (so I guess Onibaba is a “no” on that Does The Dog Live site). It’s brutal, but the alternative is starvation and death.
With the most essential needs of food, water, and shelter addressed, the next is physical gratification. The young woman and Hachi don’t really have any sort of connection, in fact, the young woman suspects Hachi may have abandoned or even killed her husband. Nonetheless, he’s the only man around and she’s the only young woman around, so they can’t resist each other. The middle-aged woman is obviously jealous of this, hateful of the fact that she is considered a “hag” now and the only male suitor she has is the man she sells equipment to, who offered her more food to sleep with him. This is a world of ugly, primal lust, as encapsulated by the middle-aged woman’s statement that she’s “never seen anything beautiful.”
On the contrary, Onibaba is beautiful. The movie is marvelously shot in widescreen black and white, truly a showcase for why some people would argue that black and white films look more “cinematic” than color movies. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the memorable score of rapid drumming, combined with nightmarish screaming and the occasional jazzy interlude. It’s good stuff, but mostly I’ll remember this movie for the quiet scenes of the wind blowing fields of reeds and tall grass, and the darkness that lies hidden within.