Sunday, October 3, 2010

Film Club Monday: Onibaba

As many of you know, I do love a good clubbing.

Oh wait. No I don't.

But a Final Girl Film Clubbing, that's one act of unitarity I'll sign up for!

This month's pick was a film I watched about a year and a half ago, Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba. Sadly I once again slacked off and didn't get a chance to revisit it, but here's my ancient review, born in the early days of this here Doll's House (the one month anniversary, to be exact). Enjoy if you can, but be sure to head over to Stacie Ponder's Final Girl blog spectacular for her, plus many more deliciously millet filled reviews.

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

Despite the dark nature of Onibaba,  the film also contains some genuinely great 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
Just in case you had any doubts, living with your mother-in-law is not a good idea

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

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. Glad you dug ONIBABA. One of my favorite Asian horror movies. I first saw it last year or the year before not really knowing what I was getting myself into other than it was a Criterion DVD and the cover looked cool. I was blown away by the cinematography and the almost expressionist look of the film, as well as the score which you pointed out. Great review!

  2. Such a strangely primal film that looks and sounds like something so raw. Apparently, Bill Friedken even took inspiration from it in The Exorcist by using a similar mask for Father Karras' subway nightmare.

  3. I had added this one to my queue about six or so months back based off the great description and it being a Criterion release. I still haven't seen it, but since I did add it, I have read of at least five other people loving this film, Aaron being one of them, and it really gets me pumped to check it out. Maybe I'll do so this month as it is all horror all day!

  4. I think you'll dig it Matt. Bump it up thy queue with haste.

  5. I actually just viewed this film for the Final Girl Film Club. I had no idea what the film was about beforehand and was totally blown away! Very enjoyable review, I especially like your "lessons learned" section.

  6. Thanks for stopping by Stacey! I'm leaving your review a comment AS WE SPEAK (I mean type. Damnit! I already killed the excitement).

  7. Great review here, Emily. Just caught Onibaba for the first time last week and really enjoyed it. Sort of an odd duck: a period drama w/ elements of horror wrapped up in a very slickly produced package. The cinematography was gorgeous throughout and I loved the look and sound of those transitions when the daughter-in-law would sprint to Hachi’s hut. This has me especially stoked for Shindo’s horror follow-up, Kuroneko, which is playing at Film Forum at the end of the month.

  8. Oooh I know nothing about Kuroneko! Will investigate and wait for your opinion.

    Onibaba works for so many reasons, but partially, as you point out, for the fact that it's not traditional. Is it horror, drama, fairy tale? It doesn't matter. It's just fascinating.

    And one more vote for that score!