|A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Kaneto Shindo, 1964, Japan, 103 mins
Cast: Nobuko Otowa, Jilsuko Yoshimura, Kei Sato
An elegant black and white morality tale from 1960s Japan, Onibaba has the emotional depth and philosophical breadth of vision that Western audiences will recognise from the more famous work of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu.
On the peripheries of a brutal civil war, an ageing peasant woman lives with her daughter-in-law, eking out an existence by murdering injured, lost soldiers and selling their swords and armour. But when her neighbour returns from the front he announces, with his mouth full of food, that her son is has been killed in battle. His appearance marks the start of a struggle between the two of them for the affections of the newly widowed daughter-in-law. The old woman seems doomed to lose, until the appearance of a mysterious samurai offers her an opportunity to change the situation.
It's a small scale story, less about the effects of the great historical changes that loom in the background than about eternal themes of everyday lives - the fear of abandonment, the desire for love, the challenge of living when times are unbearably hard. With only a handful of characters and a twist that relies on a traditional mask, the film derives much from Noh theatre, but uses more naturalistic acting to create a hybrid dramatic style.
Although shot almost entirely on location in the marshes of Chiba, the picture has an enclosed and claustrophobic feel, reflecting its theatrical antecedents, and also emphasising the way the characters are trapped by circumstance. In fact while there are only five human characters of any note in the story, the marsh where they live takes on the role of a sixth. Its swaying reeds and startling metamorphoses from night to day set the tone of each scene and reflect the emotional lives of its inhabitants.
The photography is ravishing, with beautiful widescreen shots lingering on the play of sunlight and shadow across the faces of the characters. Day-for-night scenes and dramatic spotlight effects add to the supernatural feel of the piece, creating a picture that, like Throne of Blood, hovers between the physical world and the spiritual one. So much so that when the samurai appears halfway through the story disguised as a demon, the audience is as unsure as the characters themselves whether he might really be an apparition from hell.
Onibaba is not an action adventure like Seven Samurai. Nor is it a family drama like Tokyo Story. Instead it draws a line between these two masterpieces to create a leisurely paced and thoroughly engrossing, emotional tale about the overlap between this world and the next. Recommended.