Posted by Holly
Onibaba has long been considered a classic of Japanese cinema, particularly when talking about early horror films. With its harsh depiction of life during time of war and its frank look at sexuality, it’s easy to see why it has managed to stick out in the minds of so many viewers over the years. The question then becomes this: does it deserve its distinction as a horror classic?
Onibaba follows a woman and her daughter-in-law, as they struggle to get by in 14th century Japan, a countryside torn by war. While the older woman awaits the return of her son, Kichi, she and Kichi’s wife attempt to make ends meet by murdering passing samurai and selling their armor. This helps keep the two women fed, but when news of Kichi’s death reaches them, both are devastated. And when Kichi’s mother comes upon a samurai wearing a strange demon mask, things begin to fall apart entirely.
When looking at something with a ‘classic’ status, it’s important to evaluate it in its own context, as well as with the critical eye of a modern perspective. In the case of the former, it’s easy to see why this film resonated with its contemporary audience. It carries a very strong post World War 2 sense of war itself being the evil at hand, and the horror of what humans are willing to do to each other. From a modern outlook, it feels much more like a supernatural drama than a proper horror tale.
Don’t discount the film right away, though; it creates a very eerie atmosphere from the get-go with its stark black and white imagery, its swampy setting with the constant rustling of tall grass, and ominous focus on The Hole. It manages to pull you into the desperate situation of these women early on, and you can almost feel their hunger. The elements of this that might be considered scary are sparse, though I will credit the film that they do not waste a single minute of screen time that focuses on the demon mask – the audience truly gets a sense of things being very off when the mask is present, and the tension cultivated through it is impressive.
Now, the difficulty I have in parsing the intentions of this film are with its two female leads. They are, first of all, never named. I could be okay with the anonymity of the central characters if it was consistent throughout the film; that is not the case, as most of the male characters are given names. Even Kichi, the son/husband of the lead pair, who is never seen on screen, is given a named identity. Beyond this fact, however, I think there is quite a bit of interest that is being done with both women.
The younger woman is a more subdued character at the beginning, following after her mother-in-law, and seemingly waiting for the return of her husband. When news of her husband’s death is broken to her, she does not linger on it for long; she begins an affair with her neighbor, to her mother-in-law’s dismay. Interestingly, her mother-in-law does not seem to necessarily be angry at the young woman for betraying the memory of her son. Her concern is primarily for herself, and the fear that she would no longer be able to survive if her daughter left her to fend for herself. She directs this anger at the man, Hachi, instead, and jealously begins to take actions to keep them apart. Taking a step back, it is interesting to see a woman’s sexual agency depicted so openly, and her desires addressed. The character takes an active choice in her own sexuality, and defends herself from those who question her about it.
The older woman is the primary catalyst for the action of the film – she is clearly the leader in the ‘business’ the two women run. She is quite ruthless and shows no regret for her kills, prioritizing her survival above all else. There is frequent nudity with this character as well, and a lack of shame in her own body – she is openly, vocally interested in sex, resulting in one of the most awkward scenes involving a tree I’ve ever watched (and I have seen Evil Dead, mind you). This woman is certainly meant to be the most wicked of the group of characters we meet, and her ultimate punishment is befitting of that, but it makes her no less intriguing of a character to watch.
Symbolism is central to the themes of this film, and you’ll find it hard to enjoy this film without an appreciation of that. The demon mask, while never confirmed to have any supernatural power in and of itself, seems to be linked closely to the selfishness of the older woman. The difficulty removing it at the end certainly feels that it’s meant to imply her sins will adhere to her, never to be forgiven, and even the last shot of the film – the older woman taking a leap over The Hole, the place where she had dumped the bodies of so many men, is left ambiguous. Does removing the mask free her of her actions? She makes her jump across the pit in pursuit of absolution for her crimes: does she make it across?
When analyzed closely, this is a film about many things: sin, the nature of survival, and hunger in its many forms. While it certainly deserves a place on the classics shelf for the haunting beauty of its imagery, and the dark statements of humanity woven into its narrative, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this if you’re looking for a horror fix. You’ll more than likely find yourself disappointed by its lack of scare factor, and miss out on it being a fascinating story of its own.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Absolutely worth a watch, though not quite high on the horror spectrum.
Violence level: Certainly there are a few deaths, nothing too gory. Maybe a squick factor for the shots of the samurai’s face.
Scariness level: Relatively low in the traditional scares, though scary in its examination on human nature. If you find Noh masks creepy, though, you are in for a few chills.
Bechdel test: Fails, on the technicality of neither woman having a name.
Mako Mori test: The older woman does have a character arc, however unpleasant it may be.