Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My Mother-In-Law Is a Demon. But How Are You?

One of the things I love about post-apocalyptic fiction is how human beings are so quickly turned into ravenous scavengers. Without the comfort of modern society, the consensus seems to be that our daily lives will consist of finding what’s edible and tearing it apart with our bare hands. Sleep. Hunt. Repeat. Not nearly as much fun as it sounds.

Set in feudal Japan during a chaotic (offscreen) civil war, Onibaba tells the hellish story of two desperate women with fierce survival instincts and incredibly primal appetites. Left alone in the grassy countryside, the only way to eat is to slaughter renegade samurai and trade their military garb for meager rations from the general store (or hut). Life is bare existence, as the pair--an old woman and her dutiful daughter-in-law--toil through the days, shoveling rice into their mouths, sleeping nude amongst the sweltering heat and aggressive drum beats, and filling deep Freudian holes with warrior corpses. The closest they come to joy is the rabid and successful hunt of a meaty puppy.

Enter Hachi, a surviving veteran of sorts (he went AWOL in a war no one seems to be keeping track of by dressing like a priest) who promptly (well, after a free meal) informs his hostesses that the man they share is dead. There’s little time for mourning as Hachi lusts after the widow, the widow coordinates nighttime trysts with Hachi, and the mother plots to keep her only companion. The highlight for most viewers comes in the third act, when a wandering samurai meets the increasingly embittered mother-in-law. Their odd little walkabout is intriguing in itself, but what follows is a wonderfully wicked ending ripped out of a Buddhist morality tale.

Like The Virgin Spring, Onibaba features a medieval setting, internal religious conflict, and a female deeply enslaved to her animal nature. Where Bergman's film explored the weakness of Christianity in the face of primal rage, Shindo Kaneto's story seems less concerned with religious karma and more intent on bringing our basic human needs and desires onto the screen. Our nameless (anti)heroines are the creatures of myth, but one of the brilliant aspects of Onibaba is just how believable their hunger is. With their lives boiled down to survival, what more can they want but a full meal and a gratifying roll in the tall grass?

High Points
A soundtrack filled with frantic drums and the occasional scream is extraordinary in establishing a world without order

Some genuine humor, particularly from the magnetic Kei Sato as Hachi

Low Points
I won’t go into spoilers, but one of our characters has a more definite conclusion than the others, and it’s so sudden that its significance feels lost

Lessons Learned
Never put something on your face when you don’t know where it’s been

Just in case you had any doubts, living with your mother-in-law is not a good idea

Sex in a bad economy is worth one bag of millet

Any DVD issued by the Criterion Collection is automatically worth the splurge (based both on quality of film and loaded features), and Onibaba is no different. The visual design is both horrifying and haunting, the score is uniquely violent, and the performances create memorable--if not overly likable-- characters that fill their archetypal roles while maintaining genuine charisma. This is a classic that earns its ranking.


  1. Nice. Spot on. This is a film that more people need to see. I haven't seen this one for years and defintely now want to see it again. Hans.

  2. It's so much deeper than I was able to express. I love a real classic that you can actually enjoy in addition to appreciating, and Onibaba just casted a spell over me the entire time.