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This was apparently quite a big success in the west when it was released in 1964. I can't help but wonder is that had something to do with the copious nudity (not full frontal, but both ladies go topless a lot, in an alluringly casual way). Surely after Seven Samurai and Ugetsu Monogatari and whatnot western audiences couldn't still express surprise that the Japanese were capable of making great movies with a straight face. 'Goodness, this film is a fascinating glimpse into a very different cinematic culture. Naked breasts, you say? Why yes, now that you mention it, I do vaguely remember something of the sort, but I'm far too high minded to notice...'
It is a damn good film, nudity or no. I've no idea when it's meant to be set. A woman and her daughter-in-law live in a huge area of pampas grass. They survive by murdering samurai fleeing from battle (there's a civil war going on) and then selling their armour to a local fence. The corpses get dumped down a hole in the ground. Then their neighbour Hachi returns from the war, bearing bad tidings - the son/husband of the women is dead. The daughter-in-law soon finds herself having an affair with Hachi. The mother-in-law, fearful of losing her only companion and assistant, tries to disrupt their affair. Eventually, she murders a samurai wearing a fearsome demon mask. She thinks that this will offer the perfect opportunity to scare her wayward daughter in law into behaving...
This is a great piece of cinema. It engages with Big Issues, specifically the way that peasants' lives are inevitably blighted by war. Neither the women nor Hachi have any idea what the war is about, and nor do they care. Hachi has been conscripted for both sides, and is now hiding in the long grass of home. The women talk wistfully of going back to farming when the war is over, but have become completely corrupted by it. They are now essentially serial killers, and although there's some rough justice in the fact that their victims are the very aristocratic warriors who have caused all the devastation, the film still expects us to be horrified by their crimes. These are people reduced to the status of animals - the women brutally club a cute dog to death and eat it (all off camera, happily). The mother-in-law refuses to prostitute herself to the seedy guy they sell the armour to, but otherwise there's not a lot these two won't do to survive. They aren't even given names.
Hachi threatens this little world, and pretty quickly figures out what's going on; he's become a murderer too, so it doesn't worry him overmuch. The only positive thing in the entire film is the relationship between Hachi and the younger woman, which starts out purely as physical gratification. It eventually blossoms into something like love, just in time for the impressively downbeat ending. The supernatural intrudes towards the end of the film, with some (for their time) fairly gruesome special effects (which might evoke the hideous burns suffered by survivors of the nuclear bombs). But although this usually gets listed in horror reference books, it's not really a genre film, and while it has some eerie moments, it's not trying to be frightening in the same was as something like The Shining is.
It's amazingly well made, with all kinds of fascinating camera angles, using disorienting close-ups and distancing long shots. The soundtrack has some almost jazzy music on it, but more often erupts in drumbeats or percussive sounds so abstract you can't tell if they're meant to be music or things that the characters in the film can hear. Japanese films of the era feel like they have a rhythm of their own, although explaining how is beyond me. There's something very matter-of-fact about the way stories are paced through their editing, and Onibaba is no exception.
The most amazing, memorable feature of the film is the grass. Above head height, it is a constant, moving, noisy presence, and the director frequently cuts to just show us the grass swaying. It makes for a threatening, disorienting environment for the film's passions to play out in. You can interpret the grass however you want, as representing the chaos that has consumed the lives of the characters, for instance, or as a wild, impersonal nature which will outlast everyone.
The performances seem great, although as always with Japanese actors I'm not really able to judge very well. Both women are attractive and convey the back-breaking labour of their day and the restless yearning of their nights very well. Hachi is energetic, slightly in the style of Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai.
There's not a lot more to say about this - it's one of those films that should be seen, not read about. It's a masterpiece, with just enough horror trappings to make it entertaining and not feel like a chore to watch.
The picture quality on the DVD is very good. Although there's a director's commentary, I couldn't get through it - I never succeed with subtitled commentaries, I have no idea why. There's a good booklet which manages not to sound too pretentious.
There's also 45 minutes of behind the scenes footage (all silent) shot by one of the actors. It's not terribly interesting, sadly. The trailer for the film is good, though, using little synchronised sound, just a drumbeat from the film as various enticing images flash in front of us.
Finally there's an enthusiastic filmed introduction by Alex Cox, which just makes me nostalgic for Moviedrome.
I wasn't expecting Onibaba to be as good as it was, suspecting it would be rather hard going (like Kwaidan, another famous Japanese supernatural film of the 60s). It is, in fact, highly entertaining. Recommended.