Kaneto Shindo's ONIBABA
Movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
Shot in vivid black and white, this widescreen Japanese horror movie from 1964 operates on several levels. There is the supernatural aspect (the demon and the mask), there is the sexual frustration of the main characters that is wildly and explicitly unleashed during the film, there is the backdrop of the natural environment formed by a sea of tall grass adjacent to a river where events play out, and there is the debasement of individuals in society caused by war that forces them into a horrific survival mode.
This being a Criterion DVD there are some extras here that are extremely interesting, including a “home movie” shot by one of the main actors, production notes and sketches, and a fascinating interview with the director, now in his 90’s. I vaguely remember this from its earlier circulation among art houses in the U.S. I doubt if I would have appreciated it back then. Now this film is an example of a formalism that we don’t see much with our fast cuts and our CGI.
The director very deliberately layers his story, all the time keeping a sharp focus on the three main characters — a middle aged woman and her young daughter, who scratch a living by killing stray soldiers and selling their armor and weapons, and a shifty young male neighbor who returns from the feudal wars to report that the woman’s son (the girl’s husband) is dead. The sexual triangle that is thus set up runs smack-dab into a surprising visit by a demon and his mask — we know it’s a trick, but it takes a hideous twist that is hard to ignore, even if the viewer has a hardened experience with the standard horror themes.
The inevitability of it all — call it “divine retribution” if you like — doesn’t take away from the impact of the ending. Slow in parts, this film is worth a view in a darkened room with no interruptions.