Genre: Human Survival, Passion and Superstition in the Face Existential Difficulty
review in one breath
In the war-torn chaos of medieval Japan morality and civility give way to the baser necessities of survival. This is a stark and vivid exploration of the heights and depths of the human animal set against the wider tragedies of war and poverty. Truly a remarkable and memorable tale of life, passion and death.
"The Hole. Deep and Dark. From ancient times its darkness has lasted."
These are the opening lines to Kaneto Shindo's 1963 film Onibaba, describing a large deep pit in the midst of an expansive field of thick, tall reeds. What does the Hole represent and what is this ageless darkness it possesses? The answer to these questions is the heart of the Onibaba story. Just as in the midst of a field brimming with life there lies a pit of foreboding darkness, so also within the realm of humanity potentially brimming with life and productivity there exists an ageless darkness; an evil which ruptures the world of daylight and leads to nether regions inhabited by objects of fear and dread.
The movie is set in rural medieval Japan in the midst of widespread social decline and increasing bloodshed through warring shogunate factions. The dialogue provides a few details regarding its historical setting. The Ashikaga shogunate army is warring against the Kusunoki shogunate, and each have now installed their own emperor, resulting in a civil schism among the nation's allegiances. The newly appointed Ashikaga Emperor sits in the charred rubble of Kyoto, while the Kusunoki Emperor has fled Kyoto to Yoshino Mountain for refuge. This description is actually an accurate historical depiction of the political climate at the decline of the Kamakura Period (1185 - 1338 AD) and the emergence of the Ashikaga Period (1338 - 1500 AD) of Japan. In 1332 AD a dispute developed regarding royal succession resulting in simultaneous "Northern" (in Kyoto) and "Southern" (at Yoshino) dynasties in a period known as the "Namboku-cho". In 1336 The Ashikaga clan, led by Ashikaga Takauji, a powerful vassal of the previously powerful Minamoto dynasty set up Emperor Komyo in Kyoto. The existing successor, Emperor Go-Daigo II fled south to establish a rival court at Yoshino. In 1338 Ashikaga Takauji was nominated Shogunate and civil war commenced throughout Japan as he tried to solidify the nation's allegiance with Kyoto. Though the civil war eventually ended in 1392 with the abdication of the Southern court, severe economic difficulties, starvation and widespread plague culminated in the 1467 Onin Civil War lasting 10 years. By the war's end, the Shogunate was powerless and the Dynastic Court was penniless. The national government subsequently collapsed in 1477 resulting in utter anarchy and feudal warring throughout most provinces. By 1500 AD, all of Japan is at war with itself.
Both the Ashikaga and Kusunoki armies employed forced conscripts, mainly peasants and farmers, who found themselves on the battlefield without proper equipment fighting potentially well-trainined soldiers. There was no end for the need for fresh conscripts, which brings us back to the rural field of reeds in which Onibaba is set.
The movie's main characters are an aged mother and her daughter-in-law who, together, strive to survive by themselves while their usual provider, the son/husband, and for that matter every male within miles, is forced to fight for one side and then the next in the civil war raging around them. Faced with starvation, the women lie in wait among the reeds for straying deserters or wounded samurai whose armor can be bartered on the local black market in exchange for millet. After stripping those they ambush and kill, the two throw their victims' bodies into the deep pit in the midst of the field. This mutual participation in murder for the sake of survival is disrupted when a male neighbor, Hachi, returns from the battlefield with news that the son/husband has been killed by a band of angry farmers while escaping conscription. The introduction of Hachi into the Mother-Daughter team adds a level of complexity which eventually evades the Mother's control. The developing passion between Hachi and the daughter gradually highlights the vulnerability and emptiness of the Mother. And though the Mother attempts to dissuade the two lovers through several means, passion prevails and the two young adults seem destined toward love.
On an evening that the daughter has snuck out to meet Hachi, the mother is confronted by a large samurai general wearing a foreboding demon ("Oni") mask. The general has been abandoned by deserting soldiers and is on his way back to Kyoto. He commands the mother upon pain of death to lead him through the expansive field of reeds toward Kyoto. While the two walk through the tall reeds, the mother vents her anger at the likes of the general for starting the war which killed her son. Coming upon the great pit the mother quietly jumps the expanse and then watches as the masked samurai falls to his death. The old woman then descends into the pit by rope to retrieve the general's mask and armor. Attempting to remove the mask she finds that it is securely fixed to his face. After several heaves the mask is removed, revealing a hideously scarred face. No explanation is given for the scarring or the fact that the mask had latched onto the general's face, though the old woman views it as a type of judgment upon "men like you who killed my son". The mother decides to use the demon mask to scare the daughter into submission and thus appears on several occasions, masked and ominous, in the path of the daughter as she sneaks through the reeds to rendezvous with Hachi. This, along with the mother's tales of the terrors of Buddhist hell awaiting those committing "sinful" love, nearly terrify the girl into submission, but not quite. On a stormy evening the mother's final attempt to scare the daughter fails as Hachi shows up to immediately engage in a vigorous romp in the reeds with the daughter.
To her horror, the old woman soon finds that the mask has become fixed to her own face and resists all efforts of removal. Upon her return, the daughter, initially frightened by the masked demon in her hut, becomes scornful and bemused at the fate of the sobbing mother, noting that the gods have not judged her for "sinful love" but instead have judged the mother for spiteful meddling. After much begging and agreeing to obey the daughter's wishes, the mother is aided by the daughter in removing the mask. Though the process is very painful and blood appears to flow from the mother's masked face, the demon mask is eventually split in half and peeled from her face. Beneath the mask, the mother's face has turned hideously disfigured causing the daughter to flee screaming "Oni!" (demon). The daughter flees the hut with the old woman in pursuit screaming "I am not a demon! I am a human being!". The movie's final moments involve first the daughter and then the old woman jumping across the expanse of the pit, though the viewer is left wondering whether the mother's attempt was successful.
The role of the mask seems central to the movie's message, as is the symbolism of the Pit. Perhaps they are intertwined, since both seem to point to an utterly immoral crevasse into which humans are prone to fall when circumstances allow. The Pit itself is associated, not only with Shinto animism and the evil spirits therein, but also with the moral depravity embraced by the women as they murder, steal and discard the bodies there. This depravity is fueled by the ravages of war, which in the film consists of pitiful anarchy, flailing panic-stricken conscripts, and social chaos. Is not this war and human depravity the real "darkness which from ancient times has lasted"? Additionally the demon mask first appears on the samurai general whose pride and nobility are only matched by the irony of his being defeated and deserted by his own soldiers, only to wander with peasants back to Kyoto. At his command countless soldiers and conscripts have died for others' notions of allegiance and nobility. The mother explicitly condemns the general as a cause for such suffering and the general does not deny his role. His participation in the fierceness, represented by the fierceness of the mask, is judged as demonic resulting is disfigurement. The mother here is also clearly judged by similar powers for her role in selfishness and manipulation in trying to force the allegiance of the daughter. The mother's fear of being abandoned and her anger at Hachi for returning without her son fuel her plan to intervene in the otherwise natural development of passion and survival between Hachi and the daughter. In the end, the mother's fate is that of the general whose disfigured body lies at the bottom of the pit. War, power, greed, manipulation; these are all aspects of human depravity embodied in the symbols of Pit and Mask.
The title Onibaba refers in part, as noted above, to the Japanese word Oni meaning Demon (in the Shinto sense). The term Baba is a rather common though derogatory reference to an old woman, and is derived from the more endearing "O-Ba-Chan" usually translated "grandmother" (though also used to refer to elderly in a respectful manner). Throughout the movie, the old woman is referred to as Baba in varying degrees of disrespect. Hachi calls her this several times, including the extremely disrespectful "Kuso-Baba", as does the samurai general. Thus there is no doubt that the movie's title Onibaba refers to the old woman becoming demonic, whether literally through a sort of divine retribution or simply through the perception of the daughter. Thus the movie's gaze toward that which is demonic falls squarely upon the woman rather than simply the mask or the pit. For this reason, the movie is clearly a moral tale regarding the depths of the human soul.
Or perhaps it is much less. Perhaps it is a demonstration of superstitions run amuck. Perhaps the samurai general suffered from a form of leprosy which he hid behind the mask and once donned, the mask communicated the disease to the mother, whose subsequent disfigurement is taken by the daughter, already shown as prone to believing in demons and Buddhist hell, as a manifestation of the demonic. Wouldn't this then be a tale about the utter depravity of the human animal and the tendency to explain this horrid condition through recourse to supernatural demons, hell and divine justice? I guess each viewer will need to decide this matter individually, just as in the real world.
Version reviewed: Region 1 subtitled DVD
|Interesting historical piece set in medieval Japan during the chaotic civil wars of the Kamakura/Ashikaga Periods. Plenty of Buddhist and Shinto elements to keep Western viewers mystified and interested. This movie set a paradigm within the mindset of Japanese movie-goers.||Though little gore, there are several samurai killed and discarded in ruthless manner. Also some divinely meted disfigurement on display!||Breasts galore as the heat and humidity of a Japanese summer overtakes our leading female characters. It's amazing what women will wear (or not wear) when there are no men to be found for miles!||Learn Buddhist theology! Factoid: "Sinful Lovers become souls with human faces, growing four legs and falling into Sinner's Hell where they are tortured with red-hot irons!" And when you're done there, be sure to check out the "Terrible Mountain of Needles" and the "Pool of Blood"! Here is your window into Japanese superstition!!|