Onibaba

1964, Movie, NR, 104 mins

Review

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One of the absolute peaks of atmospheric black-and-white horror.

While wars rage across feudal Japan, in the endless fields of pampas grass a woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) kill stray soldiers and dump their bodies in a deep hole, trading the dead men's weapons for food. One day, their neighbor Hachi (Kei Sato) comes home from the war with news that the woman's son, Kichi, is dead. After joining the pair in killing soldiers, he seduces Kichi's widow, to the dismay of the mother-in-law, who fears being deserted.

When a lost samurai (Jukichi Uno) wearing a demon mask appears one night while the daughter-in-law is visiting Hachi's hut, Kichi's mother pretends to lead him out of the reeds; instead, he falls into the hole and dies. Upon finding his corpse, the mother pries his mask off his face, which is covered with scars. The next time the daughter-in-law heads for Hachi's hut, Kichi's mother uses the mask to pretend to be a demon, and scares her into staying home. Eventually the scheme backfires when the mask becomes stuck; upon removal, her face comes with it. Running from the sight, the daughter-in-law leaps over the hole, as the faceless woman chases, screaming.

Dark, bleak, and decadent, the screenplay is dripping with depravity and sexual heat. Symbolism runs rampant in this depressed and depressing war-ravaged land where they look forward to battles for more victims, and "you can't tell what lives in the grass." Images range from the subtle (Kichi's mother finding an empty bucket abandoned by her daughter-in-law for sex in the reeds) to the sledgehammer blatant (Hachi staring into the hole, muttering, "I want a woman"). When the samurai explains that he wears the mask to protect his handsome face while fighting, Hachi's mother begs him to take it off, since she's never in this life seen real beauty.

The characters are all emotional powderkegs (uniformly negative: hatred, lust, anger, fear, jealousy) waiting to blow, superbly depicted by the actors. Dialogue is minimal, as is the excellent percussive jazz soundtrack--as is the clothing, for that matter. The final twist might seem obvious today, and maybe even in 1964 when the film was new, but the frankly sexual story, the unsettling atmosphere of violence and desperation, and the stunning visuals stand with the best of Clouzot, the grittiest and most downbeat of Bunuel. Call it Bushido Noir. (Violence, extensive nudity, sexual situations.) leave a comment

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