film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Onibaba (1964)

Several critics have struggled over the years trying to categorize this film. Is it horror? A period piece? Fantasy? An erotic drama? Some combination? Me, I say – “who cares, just watch it.”

The entire story takes place in medieval Japan, in a reed-filled swamp near Kyoto where an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) struggle to make ends meet during a civil war. All the men have been drafted into battle, and any surrounding farmland has been torn up in all the skirmishes, so all the two women can do is scavenge, prowling the reeds to find bodies of dead samurai so they can strip them and sell the armor on a black market run by a neighbor (Taiji Toyonama) and consistently nixing his suggestion that they try going into prostitution.

Then another neighbor, Hachi (Kei Satō), turns up at their hut one night. Hachi was drafted the same day as Kishi – the younger woman’s husband, and older woman’s son – and he breaks it to them that he and Kishi both deserted the army after several months of ill treatment, but Kishi had been killed. Hachi made it out alive and had every intention of staying that way, returning to his old hut and laying low for the rest of the war. Both women are distraught by Hachi’s news – at least, at first. The older woman feels Hachi was always a slippery fellow and assumes he had something to do with Kishi’s death. But the younger woman can’t help but notice he’s kinda cute. And Hachi thinks she’s kinda cute too. And well, she is single now…and before long, the couple are sneaking off for overnight hookups, causing the older woman great consternation. As the days wear on, she goes to greater and greater lengths to keep the pair apart, first with threats and then spying. Telling the younger woman folk tales about demons who attack adulterous woman seems to work – for a while. But then the older woman meets a lost samurai (Jūkichi Uno) wearing a creepy mask, and tricks him out of it. Maybe if she wears the mask herself and uses it to give the girl a good scare…

There is a rawness to this film, an earthiness that grabs your attention. The women often sleep topless in their hut, and it’s not presented with any kind of hubba-hubba titilation; they’re topless because it’s bloody hot. In one scene, Hachi is following the younger woman from the river towards her own hut; and as he walks, the camera gives us a shot of the younger woman’s backside, which is exactly what Hachi is looking at. And the older woman also gets an intriguing scene where she stumbles upon Hachi and her daughter in law coupling in his hut – but instead of just being scandalized, we realize she’s got some sexual frustration of her own she’s also working through; which may be part of why she’s propositioning Hachi herself a scene later. But most of her motivation is a fear of abandonment – she’s lost her son, she may lose her daughter-in-law, and then she’ll be truly destitute. The war has brought her to this, and that is likely also why she takes out her anger on the masked samurai mid-film – these high-class noblemen dared drag her son into a petty squabble and that just ruined everything.

It’s unlike any other period Japanese drama I’ve seen; it feels more like a folk horror piece, more like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in a way. It also avoids any kind of cliches about the lives of these peasants – they aren’t simple people, nor are they unusual noble or cruel. They’re just desperate and scared and tired and confused and willing to do just about anything to survive and thrive, and if that means putting on a creepy mask or hooking up with the skeevy neighbor, then fair enough.

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