If you've seen A League of Their Own and can imagine that film's setting transposed to fourteenth century Japan and the womens' wartime occupations from professional baseball players to samurai-killers, you're coming close to Onibaba, a Japanese film from 1964 so strange and unsettling that there still doesn't seem to be a consensus on it. The violence is grisly, the sex nigh gratuitous. At its core, however, Onibaba is an almost tragic tale of three people living through war and poverty, coping in ways that only make matters worse for themselves and each other.
Released in a time when Akira Kurosawa still dominated Japanese cinema, the film is handled artfully by director Kaneto Shindô. He presents us with a poignant blend of heavy, black-and-white atmosphere and genuinely unnerving moments of horror. The tension is high immediately, and maintained throughout. This is due in no small part to Onibaba's three leads, Nobuko Otowa (the woman for whom the film is named), Jitsuko Yoshimura (the daughter-in-law), and Kei Satô (Hachi), who returns home from war alone, leaving the woman without a son and the daughter without a husband. The web of sex, murder, and betrayal that ensues makes this a tough one to forget.
The two women have survived on their own up to this point by murdering unsuspecting samurai, throwing their corpses into a pit, and selling their equipment. With the arrival of Hachi, however, their dynamic is disrupted: the daughter begins a sexual relationship with him, and the woman fears she will be left alone. In an act of desperation, she starts wearing the demonic-looking mask of one of her many victims — who (ironically, we later find out) claimed to be too handsome for a peasant like her to look upon — and lying in wait in the reeds between their two huts, stopping the daughter on the way to her trysts with Hachi. It works, but only for a while. The abrupt cutoff that ends the film has a satisfying circularity to it, despite its lack of resolution, and could be seen as having influenced such recent movies as Reservoir Dogs and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. The difference here is that there's no humor or quirkiness to soften the blow.
Visually, the film dazzles. Cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda clearly had a yen for extended shots of windswept susuki grass that only the films of Terrence Malick can match. Too, the odd camera angles and slow-motion are as disorienting as they are eye-catching. This, along with the semi-ambient soundtrack (pigeons can be heard throughout), give the film a frantic pace that sometimes make this a physically uncomfortable viewing experience in a way I'm sure was intentional.
The film's title, translated literally, means demon woman. Buddhist fable aside, that strikes me as unfair: the woman is many things, but she is human above all else. Vindictive, murderous, and conniving, but human nonetheless. This is a story about wartime desperation — some have interpreted the effects of the mask on one's face as mirroring the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and, as a result, it's hard to point to any of the three characters as being an antagonist. Rather, their moral ambiguity is in keeping with the overwhelming grey space that makes up the rest of Onibaba, a world all unto its own.