Cinema Classics Marathon: “Onibaba (1964)”


My friends and I have always had a certain disagreement when it came to “scary” movies. We all had our respective tastes in the type of horror films we enjoyed, but nevertheless we’d argue over which movies were truly the scariest. I’ve always been able to handle “horror” films such as the Scream or Halloween movie series. Slasher films like those are full of “jumps”, but not what I’d consider to be horrorifying in a cinematic sense. Another genre of horror films I’ve never let get the best of me are “torture horror” films. There was a recent spike in the production of this type of horror film with the movie franchise Saw leading the way. Again, these films weren’t so much scary as they were gross to watch. Some of these films were so formulaic that I could anticipate how the movie was going to end, mid-way through. And that’s with the so called twists.

Kaneto Shindo has been in the professional “movie-making” business for 60 years to this day, even active up to about a year ago. To put figures behind the words, Mr. Shindo has directed over 40 films and written over 200+ scripts. In addition to directing, Shindo served as the head of the Japan Writers Guild for 9 years. The types of films Shindo often made had something to do with the bombing of Hiroshima (as he was born their), then later the issues elderly people had to confront. He’s apparently keen on topping his films with strong leading actresses. I can totally see myself having a marathon centered around the movies of the 99-year old director soon. In the meantime, let me get back to what Onibaba did that made it a legitimate horror film, in my book.

With movies, especially horror fiilms, I believe the audience should be kept guessing until the very end. Whether there is a murder mystery involving a psycho killer, or some supernatural being reeking havoc on some sex-crazed teens; the audience must never feel as though they could correctly guess the end of the film their watching. Unfortunaetly for us, that’s a task easier said than done. Onibaba, however, is in fact among the horror films that gets this aspect right. I will say that as a “scary” movie, a lot of the suspense comes from the feeling of loneliness the film’s atomshere establishes. It also has the weird distinction of telling the horror story from the point of view of the “monsters” in the story. The two woman, our “protagonists”, are killing wounded and weary soldiers for their weapons and clothes. Their also dumping the bodies in a giant ditch with looks like a dried up well. Based on these actions alone, the two women in question are easily identified as the villians in the film. Yet, their intention isn’t to kill for the sake of killing. They see murder as a way to provide money, food, and shelter; a way for them to survive and press on.

Early on the film establishes the two women as being highway men. Except they murder their victims as oppose to sticking them up for their loot. When they attack a victim it’s always a surprise attack, and the soldier is usually overwhelmed by the sudden rush. There is even a scene where the two women, along with Hachi (the neighbor), attack two soldiers who initially seek their help climbing out of a lake. The two soldiers are stabbed, drowned and stripped of any valuables they may have been carrying. I know right? That’s horrible. Yet during the killings on screen there is complete silence, no music to sway the audience one way or the other; leaving the scene to speak for itself. That was truly horrifying. How could we possibly judge these women who have been left to fend for themselves while they’re only source of food has left to fight in a violent, pointless war? With that question scrolling through my mind, I watched as these two women relentlessy hunted down, killed, and stole from the injured, war-beaten soldiers.

Later on in the film, after the two women have accepted their neighbor (Hachi) into their little scheme, the story takes a very unique turn for the worst. Sex and loneliness help kick the tone of the film up a notch, and the two women begin to indirectly and directly bicker over who deserved the attention of their neighbor. The twisted passion (not love) triangle is later destroyed when an unexpected force intervenes; although the two women are preoccupied with another problem to realize this. What other problem am I talking about?

The mask. The grotesque, cow skulled, abomination of a helmet enters the story atop the head of a wondering samurai. It’s implied that the samurai is a desserter of the war and seems to have become lost while trying to escape the chaos of battle. He runs into the older woman and promptly scares the hell out of her. His mask is so horrifying, it freezes the older woman in place with fear. Upon seeing this, the samurai demands to be led out of the woods. Little did he know, the older woman had a trick up her sleeve.


The climax of the film I though had one of the better payoffs I had seen in my short stint covering Asian cinema. Out of respect to those of you who haven’t seen the movie, I will not reveal the ending. I will say that it’s totally insane in that it ends on an incredibly ambigious note. So ambigious that it made the entire story feel like something your read in a book of short stories; where the endings were usually ambigious or melancholy. Please watch this film. You will not regret it. The payoff at the end is worth the wait.


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