Onibaba makes a leap into the mythical just as its allegory becomes clear, a choice that only adds to its mystique
There’s a hole at the center of Onibaba, a film fixated upon the darkest depths of human depravity, the material conditions that lead to such degradation and the emotional ones which countermand it. This abyss – a pit which readily accepts the corpses of murdered soldiers – takes on a significant symbolic weight, a sucking vacuity that stands in for the essential malleability of human nature, its emptiness possessing no intrinsic value. It’s matched by a suffocating swath of reeds, stretching as far as the eye can see, which surrounds the pit and renders it invisible to the outside world. Both spaces are iconic in their oppressiveness, the nullity of the hole balancing out the crushing overgrowth of the plants. In short, it’s the perfect setup for a horror masterpiece, particularly one that locates the greatest terrors in uncomfortable proximity to ourselves.
Despite the focus on external symbology, the dread here is thus entirely internalized, emanating from within despite the tempest of war swirling all around. That conflict is the civil one that spiraled out from the collapse of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333, the after-effects of which wracked Japan for more than fifty years. Attempting to sway with these winds are two women, one young (Jitsuko Yoshimura), one a generation older (Nobuko Otowa), who’ve been stranded together in a small, cramped hut. Unable to farm due to the chaos around them, these nameless characters resort to slaughtering the exhausted soldiers who stumble into the vicinity of their home, stripping them of sellable goods and tossing the remnants in the pit. Their state becomes even more desperate once their neighbor Hachi (Kei Satō) returns from the battle, reporting that the younger woman’s husband has perished, while setting immediate designs on snatching her up as his own new bride.
Hachi’s behavior functions as an outgrowth of the nihilistic pointlessness of the conflict itself. Stemming from a far-off power struggle no one seems to understand, the lack of incitement assures that its soldiers have no overriding allegiance. They set out to fight from a combination of coercion and curiosity, looking to make a buck as flames erupt around them. In this atmosphere, samurai warriors are less noble icons than ringleaders of organized chaos, middle managers charged with goading unwilling men into doing the bidding of distant warlords. The one fight depicted between them is not a delicate sword dance, but a sloppy brawl in which both men plunge from their horses into a river, slash pathetically at each other while trying to stay afloat, then drift off in separate directions, blood streaming behind them.
Another samurai wears a mask, supposedly to shield his beautiful face from the sight of the pathetic peasants that surround him. Yet after he’s killed, the mask adheres to his face, leaving a destroyed visage behind, the supposed beauty melted into a ruined mess. Here the film’s otherwise timeless story takes on a modern political component. A native of Hiroshima, director Kaneto Shindo apparently applied the makeup for certain scenes himself, inspired by the horrors he witnessed after the atomic bombing of the city. With this in mind, the film’s action becomes interlaced with the events visited upon the island during World War II, a more immediate instance of aimless, power-hungry aggression bringing down deleterious effects on everyday people.
Significantly, Onibaba makes a leap into the mythical just as its allegory becomes clear, a choice that only adds to its mystique. Furious after the younger woman takes up with Hachi, leaving her to fend for herself, the older one dons the samurai’s terrifying mask, intending to frighten her daughter-in-law into returning home. Instead she ends up taking on the sinister qualities the mask represents, embodying the Noh figure of the Hannya hag, a vengeful woman whose jealousy has made her monstrous. Balancing out the blame, the film also accords Hachi with heavy demonic undertones; when he first appears, he chuckles about having posed as a priest, in order to mollify a man he hoped to rob and murder. Like the classic Tengu demon, which inhabits a priestly disguise to better carry out its malicious trickster antics, he serves as a harbinger of war, his appearance signaling the bleed-over of internecine conflict onto the domestic front.
Positioned perfectly between dark fantasy and contemporary psychodrama, the film makes a morbid spectacle of what war does to people, while also affirming that the capacity for such monstrousness lurks always inside us. Introducing its female protagonists in a bestial state, it then devotes a great deal of effort to humanizing them, qualities which grant the eventual demonic destruction a vivid, agonizing character. Never excusing its characters barbarous behavior, Onibaba is careful to place them in both a mythological and modern context, a move that makes its descent into horror feel all the more compelling.