Director – Kaneto Shindo
Cast – Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Sato, Jûkichi Uno, Taiji Tonoyama
Release Year – 1964
Reviewed by John of the Dead
Onibaba had been on my queue for a very long time ever since I first heard of this mid-60s Japanese effort a few years ago, but I never had enough interest in the film (based on horror alone) because I was unsure of how much horror it really contained. It has been listed and marketed as a horror film, and that was the sole reason behind my finally giving this one a watch, and I can now say that while Onibaba is a fantastic film overall, if you are looking for a horror experience in this you may find yourself underwhelmed.
After being forced to fight as a solder of war in 14th century Japan, Kichi’s mother and wife are forced to provide for themselves in their lowly village by ambushing wayward warriors and selling their belongings to a greedy merchant for food. When Kichi’s mother catches her son’s wife with a deserter who claims Kichi was killed in battle, his mother dons a haunting mask to teach her son’s adulterous wife a lesson. However, the tables have turned on Kichi’s mother when she learns of the horror that comes with wearing the mask.
I did not know what to expect going into this one, I was hoping for a devout horror effort, but I had a strong feeling that the horror, if any, would be inferred and not outright. That is not always a bad thing, as I have seen horror films in the past that were not outrightly horror but left me very satisfied in the end, and that is somewhat the case with Onibaba.
The storyline following Kichi’s mother and wife, who are never named, was heavy on drama as it focused on their struggle to survive without a provider during one of Japan’s darkest eras. The idea of them having to ambush tired soldiers in order to sell the soldiers’ armament for rice was where a good amount of the horror came from. How so? The kill sequences delivered horror via the heinous acts the women for forced to exhibit in order to attain basic elements for survive. The story really is a simple effort that could be condensed into a much shorter timeframe, but writer Kaneto Shindo(Hachi-ko) turns this easy plot into a poetic story centering on honor, despair/desperation, jealousy, and the horror that results from those elements. While this is a great story that takes its time developing, you may balk at how long it takes for the more devout horror to finally kick in, which comes via the mother donning a mask from a downed soldier to scare her adulterous daughter-in-law. While we are aware that the young girl’s belief that she is seeing a demon is not actually true, it is horrific in its own right and only ups the ante when the mother is unable to take the mask off. The climax to the film will be up to interpretation to the viewer, and is definitely more poetic than horror, but that is not necessarily a bad thing given how great it was.
Writer Kaneto Shindo also served as the film’s director, and did a superb job executing this piece as I found his direction to be the film’s highest selling point. He perfectly portrays the conflict and struggles the women are forced to deal with, and he does so with artful excellence by giving us beautiful visuals and atmosphere that transfers from the women’s lowly claustrophobic huts to the captivating farm fields that surround them. The great character performances help sell the horror originally, and his execution of the mask scenes was fantastic and made for some of the scariest scenes of all time at the time of the film’s debut, even after knowing the truth behind what was going on.
Overall, Onibaba is a fantastic film that serves up enough horror to warrant a view from horror fans, but be prepared for what you are getting into. The horror is of low levels, but the horror that we do get is fantastic and may make for a worthwhile experience if you can appreciate everything around the horror in this one.