Wednesday 8 February 2017

We Don't Go Back #34: Onibaba (Demon Woman) (1964)

Two soldiers of medieval Japan escape from  a battle, run terrified through a field of high susuki reeds until, spent, they collapse in a tiny clearing, to take a breath, to wonder what to do next. It's all right. It's all right.

Seconds later, both are dead, each impaled on a spear that erupts from the reeds. The owners of the spears, two women, one in her late teens, one in her late thirties, enter the clearing and strip the men of their arms and armour, pack it up in baskets. Then they drag the bodies to a gaping pit and dump them. Then they just get on with their day. After they've had some food and a nap, the women take the arms to an arms dealer who sits in a cave, and exchange them for bags of millet.

This is their everyday life. They live in a world of damp and sweat. Soldiers stray into their fields of reeds and the pit grows ever more full of corpses, picked clean quickly and efficiently by the crows. If they're lucky, they might find a dog they can catch and kill, but their life depends on stolen arms from murdered soldiers. 
Shindo Kaneto's Onibaba (Demon Woman) is based upon a Buddhist fable, but it goes far beyond its fairytale origin: it creates a world of superstition and fear. The field in which its few characters move works as a liminal space between the rational and the inexplicable. The seasons are as confused as the political situation, frost and hail came in high summer; people survive on earthworms and snakes. No crops survive. The soldiers who stumble into the field of reeds might as well be ghosts. They're dead already. The pit, the film tells us, has been there longer than of the people.
The mother (Otowa Nobuko) and the young woman (Yoshimura Jitsuko), are not named; in a sense, they need no names, for they are alone here, until a neighbour, Hachi (Sato Kei), long thought lost, stumbles back one night starving and exhausted. He tells a story of how he and the other village men were conscripted by one side and then the other in a civil war they didn't understand. With brutal insensitivity, he demands another bowl of rice and tells the women how the older woman's son, who was the young woman's husband, died. Then, cunning, Hachi demands to know how come they eat when the crops have failed? They have decent clothing, supplies of grain. How come?
In the pit.
Hachi, finding himself in the middle of one of the women's ambushes, soon figures it out. They let him share the profits this time (although rather than millet, he asks for sake). He makes it clear to the women that he wants a piece of the action, and the young woman in his bed. The mother isn't having any of either; the young woman, lonely, horny and painfully aware that Hachi is literally the only eligible man for miles, begins a relationship with him behind her mother-in-law's back.When there's only one back to go behind, it's impossible to keep a secret like this for long.
Hachi, leering.
The older woman insists to herself and to her daughter-in-law that she can't murder all those soldiers on her own, and cannot countenance losing her daughter-in-law to this leering idiot. First, she tries to seduce him (and after all, she is clearly closer in age to Hachi than her daughter-in-law), but he isn't interested. So then, getting the idea from a mask on a samurai she kills while her daughter is off with Hachi, she decides to take a different tack, and scare her superstitious daughter away.

Hachi tells the young woman that there are no demons. But then, one of the first things he says after he reappears is that it's hard to kill a man, and as the film demonstrates, he's wrong about that, too.
The demon.
Onibaba is a direct sort of a film. It's indisputably folk horror; it proves that this accidental genre can take root far away. The supernatural impinges on the edges of the story. The mask that drives the final act of the film carries a sort of curse, a retribution, but unlike the Buddhist parable the story is based on, Onibaba's moral universe is uncaring. Hail falls in high summer because it does. The mask claims victims because it does. Everything is wrong because it is. Armed men come out of nowhere and die just as easily.

Everything is wrong.

I'm not sure I enjoyed Onibaba all that much. I mean, I am pretty sure I'll watch it again. I recognised it as a good film, focussed, well scripted, well directed, well acted. Its soundtrack, all drums and screams, deserves a special mention; it is urgent, discordant, it sets your teeth on edge. Something is wrong here, it says. Everything is wrong.