Wednesday, September 25, 2013

FI: Onibaba

(Apologies for not posting over the last couple of days. I have, unfortunately, been too busy to watch movies! In lieu of a dedicated Criteritron post for this week, please accept this look at Onibaba, which is also available to stream via Criterion's HuluPlus channel here.)

1964, Japan
Written and directed by Kaneto Shindo

Japanese auteur Kaneto Shindo was a prolific writer and director, though I've only seen two of the more than 200 films in which he had a hand over his long career. Both of those, 1968's Kuroneko and 1964's Onibaba, take place in a supernatural, mythic version of Japan's feudal past, and have to do with the effects of war on the women left behind whenever men go off to fight. In Kuroneko, two women who are raped and murdered by roving samurai become feline spectral avengers, tempting and slaughtering all subsequent samurai who pass their way. Though no less hard done by, Onibaba's unnamed women are survivors. When her son Kichi is conscripted into a civil war in 14th Century Japan, a destitute mother (Nobuko Otawa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) persevere by murdering, then looting the corpses of, soldiers unlucky enough to wander into the field of towering reeds around their hovel. Soon, Hachi (Kei Sato), a neighbor and fellow conscripted soldier, returns and informs the pair that Kichi is dead. Hachi's no-nonsense attitude and frank sensuality, coupled with the women's recent loss, threatens to destabilize their relationship and put their survival at risk. And that's before the arrival of a mysterious, demon-masked samurai late one night...

Onibaba is a striking film, both visually and aurally. Kiyomi Kuroda's cinematography is astounding, at turns kinetic and balefully still, often pitched in the highest contrast black and white. Kuroda's compositions and Shindo's staging turn the vast reed field into everything from a death trap to a running track, from a place of concealment to an otherworldly labyrinth. Meanwhile, Hikaru Hiyashi's score—primarily composed of high-speed drumming punctuated by occasional animalistic cries—combines with the imagery to create a world just slightly off from our own, a place of demons and potential malice lurking in the night. This eerie, menacing tone alone makes the film worth watching.

What puts Onibaba over the top is its combination of complex morality and real-life resonance. Much like Europe in the first World War, Japan lost a significant percentage of its young, able-bodied men on WWII's Pacific front. The realities of home life may not have been quite as bad as in feudal times, but deprivation, collateral damage, and desperate living surely played a part. By melding these elements into a creepy horror/history picture, Shindo is able to comment on the present—and, indeed, on the human cost of all wars. At the same time, his characters don't operate on a simple black/white morality. Their murdering of soldiers is presented as just another way to get by, while vices like sloth, nosiness, and jealousy are deemed more worthy of punishment. Haunting, taut, and difficult to look away from, Onibaba is a prime example of how the synthesis of imagery, music, and thematic concerns can burn a film onto your brain.

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