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ONIBABA (1964): Retro Review…“Hell Must Exist — A Great Priest Told Me So!”

onibaba
Onibaba – 1964

In feudal Japan two nameless women, the Mother (Nobuko Otowa, Kuroneko) and the Wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura), survive by ambushing isolated soldiers in fields of tall, swampy Eulalia grass, and throwing the corpses into a pit.  A deserter, Hachi (Kei Satô, Kwaidan), fuels the sexual tension between the two, and a samurai’s mask may hold the dark power to destroy all three.  The three survive by selling the stolen goods for millet and other necessities from the local fence, Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama, Empire of Passion).  As time progresses, additional tension is drawn between the three as the Mother, the Wife and Hachi develop a sexual desire felt by all three, but only shared by the latter two.  This lopsided dynamic is amplified by the Mother’s additional bitterness that Hachi has come back from the war, while her son has not.

These moods of sexuality, slyness, bitterness and anger are cleverly brought into our own psyche by expert camera angles and lighting, and the sounds of flutes and Taiko drumming, which mimic the sounds of desperate fleeing through the grass and other organic noises.  As the mask comes into play to torment one player after the next, one is left wondering if the mask is truly cursed, or if those around it are simply subject to more of the bad fortunes that already plague their lives.

oniba-24Onibaba is truly terrifying, dramatic movie, directed and written by Kaneto Shindô (Kuroneko), who has a mastery of cinematography and lighting and pacing. He writes characters that are simultaneously sympathetic, beautiful, ugly and terrifying.  It is almost impossible to take sides with the principle characters in this movie, as all are driven by understandable motives in an environment largely out of their control.  As one ventures deeper and deeper into the world of horror, Onibaba is required viewing for those who want to see the terror driven less by the boogeymen we can see, but by those things that come from within ourselves.

Onibaba’s title is subtitled “Demon Woman” in the Criterion Collection.  Other sources say the title in Japanese is 鬼婆, which supposedly translates to “Demon Hag”.  Google Translate states that the Japanese calligraphy for Onibaba means “Hag”.

 

 

 

 

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