The film Onibaba (1964) by expressionist director Shindo Kaneto came as a shell shock when I finally saw it last week. It is an aggressive masterwork from the heyday of Japanese cinema that hits you squarely in the face – in a most pleasant way. Just as its contemporary The Woman in the Dunes by Teshigahara is completely dominated by shifting sands, so Onibaba is in the grip of fields of waving long susuki grass.
“I was enslaved by the waving susuki field,” says director Shindo. The grass hides beauty and savagery, terror and death, and supports the attempt at survival in times of war by a few poor peasants.
A mother and her daughter-in-law hide out here to kill stray, wounded samurai and sell their weapons and armor on the black market. The bodies are dumped unceremoniously in a deep hole in the center of the grassy realm.
Then a young man of the village returns and reports the son and husband killed. He and the young woman, now widow, are sexually attracted to each other and meet in scenes of violent eroticism – the grass now becomes the swaying of sexual impulses.
The mother fears she will loose her livelihood if the daughter-in-law leaves her and tries to shock her away from her lover by donning a demon mask she has stolen from a samurai she kills for the purpose.
Thus she becomes the Onibaba, the “Devil Woman,” of the title. But there is a catch: she is not able to remove the mask anymore, and when she finally succeeds with the help of the young woman, after much pulling and wringing, her whole face is disfigured...
The film is shot in fierce contrasts of black and white, extreme close-ups are mixed with long shots, long silences alternate with the thundering sound of drums. It is the kind of minimalist art film that invites thick tomes of commentary, but I would say, see it for yourself...