Where's Giant Baba?
And now for something completely different. When you plan to watch over 300 horror movies, you start to run out of movies you want to see. It's not like there's a shortage of horror movies out there, it's just that there's only so many good ones to go around. I've checked off many classics and must-sees on my list and there's a few more outstanding ones still to be watched. I've taken to looking at “best of” to make sure I haven't missed any major movies. Most of the lists tend to have the same movies, just in different order. I did manage to find with with a slew of lesser-known European and Asian movies. Today's movie caught my eye just for being so completely different: a Japanese horror movie from the 1960's that takes place in the 14th century. Yeah, that's something different, alright.
Onibaba (translated as Demon Hag) is a 1964 historical horror drama written and directed by Kaneto Shindo (The Naked Island, Tree Without Leaves). The movie stars Nobuko Otowa (A Last Note, The Naked Island) as Older woman and Jitsuko Yoshimura (The Insect Woman, Pigs and Battleships) as Younger woman. In 14th century feudal Japan, a civil war has erupted between fiefdoms. Through the ravages of war and famine, both woman survive by killing lost soldiers who wander near their home. They hide in fields and when the soldiers come buy, they viciously stab them to death. The women strip the soldiers of their armor and weapons and trade them with a merchant for food. Hachi (Kei Sato, The Human Condition, The Ceremony), a neighbor to the women, returns from war and informs the older woman that her son was killed. Her son was also the husband of the younger woman. Hachi helps the women kill two soldiers and soon beings to seduce the younger woman. She begins to sneak out of her hut at night to have sex with Hachi. The older woman follows her one night and discovers their secret relationship. Afraid that the younger woman will leave her and make killing soldiers too difficult, the older woman begs Hachi to end the affair, but he refuses. One night, a lost samurai wearing a demon masks comes across the older woman and asks her for directions. He refuses to remove his mask, saying he is the most handsome man in Kyoto and that the older woman would be overcome by his good looks. She leads him through a field and he falls into a large gaping hole where the women dump the bodies of their victims. She climbs down and, after struggling mightily, removes his mask, revealing a hideously disfigured face. She dons the mask nightly and terrorizes the younger woman, preventing her from seeing Hachi. What will happen between the women and why was the mask so difficult to remove?
"Touch Of Death, do your thing!"
Onibaba is a beautifully stylistic and artistic movie, rarely if ever seen in horror. Scenes are visually striking thanks to pretty scenery and Kaneto Shindo's incredibly skillful eye. There is a variety of shots at different angles throughout the film which help convey the emotion of each scene. The black-and-white film helps give the movie a more classic look. The movie does have some good social commentary, questioning motives and instinct of survival. The horror of war and the horror of loss are two strong themes in the movie and make you really feel for both woman. The older woman dons the mask, becoming a demon herself. Her selfishness and jealousy has twisted her priorities and her love for the younger woman. It's interesting that both main characters are never actually named. Perhaps that is to allow the audience to project their own tags to them? It's not to lessen or demean them because they are both strong female characters, a constant in Shindo's films.
To be fair, Onibaba isn't a traditional horror movie. While there are sinister hints and questionable actions, the true horror doesn't come in until the last 20 minutes. Prior to that, we have a historical drama focusing on emotions and the struggles of war. It's good, no question, but horror fans will feel very antsy waiting for things to happen. There are a few too many extended scenes of ravenous eating and there is a surprising amount of nudity. The mask used has a traditional look, but it still manages to be unsettling, creating a look of sinister sadness, perfect for the older woman. While it's no Akira Kurosawa film, there is some action and violence in the movie. The main excitement comes from the end when Onibaba actually becomes horror.
"But Halloween hasn't even been invented yet!"
Onibaba would fit in with the art house crowd as well as fans of traditional horror. The movie looks great thanks to beautiful locations and great direction. The acting is very good and makes the story very believable. If there is one problem it's that the movie is very slow and takes a long time to get to any excitement. The blood-splattered horror fans will grow frustrated, but the movie deserves the right amount of patience and thoughtfulness. Onibaba is a good movie if you're looking for something a little different and a little special. It's not for everyone, but to those that appreciate the art of filmmaking and a good overall story, it's a hidden gem.