Directed By: Kaneto Shindô
Starring: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satô
Line from the film: "I'm not a demon! I'm a human being!"
Trivia: Initially refused a certificate in England by the BBFC in 1965, but resubmitted in 1968 where it was approved with an X classification
It’s the mid-14th century, and Japan is in a state of civil war. Two battle-weary Samurais, separated from their compatriots, make their way through a thicket of tall reeds. One Samurai is badly injured, and the other is helping him navigate the difficult terrain. Suddenly, the two are tripped up, and before they can get back on their feet, both are struck by spears and killed.
We assume the warriors were done in by the enemy, but that’s not the case. Instead, a middle-aged woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) appear on the scene. With her son Kichi (the daughter-in-law’s husband) off to war, the women, unable to maintain the family farm, now make a living by killing Samurai soldiers and selling their belongings to Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama), a peddler who pays them in rice (Ushi then turns around and sells the gear back to the army for a profit).
One night, as the ladies are eating supper, Hachi (Kei Satō) bursts into their hut, asking for food. A neighbor of theirs, Hachi was hauled off to war the same time as Kichi, and tells how the two of them slipped away during a ferocious battle. According to Hachi, Kichi did not survive the trip home. With her husband now dead, it isn’t long before Hachi turns his attention towards the daughter-in-law. The Mother, fearing she will be left all alone, tries desperately to keep them apart, but to no avail. The solution to her problem presents itself one evening when a passing Samurai (Jūkichi Uno), wearing a demon’s mask, forces the Woman to lead him through the swamp. Instead, she kills the Samurai and takes his mask, which she hopes to use to frighten her daughter-in-law into ending her romance with Hachi. But things don’t go according to plan…
Directed by Kaneto Shindo, Onibaba is a raw, uncompromising look at how war affects the lives of everyday people. With no man around to tend to their farm, the Mother and Daughter-in-law resort to murder to put food on the table. What’s truly chilling, though, is the dispassionate manner in which they carry out the task. Take, for instance, the opening scene, where they kill the two Samurais. When the deed is done, the women strip their victims of their armor and clothes, then drag the near-naked bodies to a large hole in the ground and toss them in it. Never once do the ladies show remorse; for them, murder has become a way of life, and they approach it as if it was any other job.
As a result of their extreme conditions, the characters in Onibaba have lost touch with their humanity, and at times act more like animals than people (when a dog wanders too close to their hut, the two women spring into action, chasing it down and beating it to death, then cooking it that night for dinner). As for the relationship that develops between Hachi and the Daughter-in-law, it’s purely sexual, and even the Mother offers herself to Hachi at one point, in the hopes he’ll choose her instead (there is nudity in the film, but never once is it presented in an erotic fashion). Pushed to their limits, every single character in Onibaba will do whatever it takes to survive, even if it means turning on one another.
There is talk of demons and hell at several intervals throughout Onibaba, but it’s the characters who are the real monsters. And it’s the war that drove them to it.