Though an occasional stinkbomb or snoozefest slips through once in a while, Japanese film is, and has almost always been, one of the most innovative, exciting, risk-taking, challenging, entertaining, and artist-friendly world cinemas, and its horror films are no exception. Kaneto Shindô's Onibaba is a great example of the spare, poetic, atmospherically eerie black and white supernatural films that populated 1950s and '60s Japanese horror. Onibaba has the feel of an ancient folk tale even as it depicts sexuality in a frank, direct way that is still years ahead of most American film. Shindô's narrative is compelling, and he's a skilled builder of tension and character, but he's also an inspired visual stylist. The Criterion release of the film does justice to the beauty of the black and white cinematography and Shindô's framing of images.
Set in 14th century feudal Japan in a rural, isolated stretch of seemingly endless susuki grass fields, a middle-aged woman and her daughter-in-law live in poverty in a grass hut. A civil war is raging in nearby Kyoto over who will be emperor and Kichi, the son and husband, respectively, of the women, and most of the men in the village, are away at battle. Though the weather is now very hot, a disastrous unseasonal cold snap in the spring has destroyed most of the crops, and the remaining villagers are starving. The women (Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura) survive by murdering samurai who occasionally wander into the fields, stripping them of their armor, and shoving their bodies down a deep, dark hole hidden in the grasslands. They sell the armor to an unscrupulous older man in exchange for millet. The man also deals in sexual favors, but the women are disgusted by him and refuse.
Late one night, Hachi, a man who enlisted in the army with Kichi, comes to their hut. He says both men were captured and forced to fight for the other side. He also says he was able to escape from a fierce battle but Kichi was killed. He shares some of their food and takes a liking to the younger woman. Soon, the younger woman, now a widow, sneaks out of the hut each night to have sex with Hachi. The older woman disapproves, for a number of reasons: loyalty to her late son, hatred of Hachi, sexual jealousy and desire of her own, fear of abandonment. One night, an unexpected visitor enters the hut and things take a supernatural, ominous turn.
Shindô's control of mood, tone, and atmosphere is masterful. Alternating between closeups and medium shots and fixed and gliding camera movements, the film conveys the isolation and desperation of the characters without making the audience feel claustrophobic. Shindô punctuates the events in his story with beautiful but foreboding images of the tall susuki grass blowing in the wind and the women moving through it. The film is both poetic and viscerally physical. The camera captures each distinct sweat bead on the faces and bodies of the characters as they labor, have sex, eat, murder, run, and sleep. You can feel the labor required just to survive, as well as the release of tension Hachi and the younger woman get from their sexual encounters. And the film is genuinely frightening in the ominous final third. This is a classic.
Shindô had a pretty amazing career. He died last year at the age of 100, and only stopped working in film at 98. He enjoyed parallel careers as a writer/director of his own projects and as one of the most prolific and in-demand screenwriters-for-hire, and began his film career as an assistant for the legendary director Kenji Mizoguchi. His range was astonishing. He wrote art films for old masters like Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Shimizu, 1960s Japanese New Wave films for Seijun Suzuki, Kinji Fukasaku, and Yasuzo Masamura, and mainstream genre crowdpleasers like the disaster film Deathquake and an installment of the Zatoichi series. I think it's safe to say Kaneto Shindô was a cool dude, and I look forward to checking out some of his other films.