*** beware: spoilers, sexual politics, and violence ahead ***
The titular demon in Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba (translation: Demon Woman/Hag) is not the central terror of the film. Its appearance is merely a result of truer horrors. The story is set in the backdrop of a war-torn medieval Japan, a setting that exasperates the inequities of the class and gender divide. We follow an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) as they struggle to survive among the men's war games. They're desperation is on full display as we see them commits terrible acts, including hunting a helpless dog for food. Despite this, I can't help but sympathize with their plight.
The film starts where it ends: the hole, the pit soldiers are fed to in exchange for their valuable belongings. But it's also the abyss of humanities own making. An on screen statement declares, "Its darkness has lasted since ancient times." Cut to: title and a spectacular fusion of Taiko drums and jazz by composer Hikaru Hayashi. It's an exhilarating score that raises pulses and repeats in key moments, an effective horror tool that I imagine inspired the films of Dario Argento.
It is unfortunate that Shindo isn't interested in giving us an alternative to the endless hole of despair. In the thrilling ending, the disfigured older woman screams that she's still human as she leaps over the pit, but it cuts mid-jump. Perhaps whether she makes it or not doesn't matter. What chance of survival does she have as a lonely demon hag if she did anyway? Onibaba is a bleak observation of the lives of poor women in the 1400s, but equally a commentary on the continued struggle in 1964 and, in turn, today.
The film needn't even speak a word in its first 10 minutes about it. When two soldiers are ambushed in the tall reeds one might have expected a typical horror movie monster or "psycho" to be behind the killing. Instead, it's our protagonist female duo who are picking their murdered corpses clean, because they need something to trade for food/money. As horrific as it is to see people kill so nonchalantly, it's more terrifying to watch a story where the leads' best idea for getting through the war is to kill wayward soldiers. At the merchant's place the older woman swiftly rejects his suggestion on another way to get by: selling sex. Later on, at the same location, we see a nude woman lying in the background with her back toward the camera, presumably an indication of women's limited options.
Some may take issue with the nudity in the film. Generally, I found that the moments of casual toplessness played out naturally. As for the sexy scenes, though tame, they where certainly of the male gaze. Sensual scenes like the one of jubilant frolicking showed glimpses of the young woman's full bare body but kept her male lover's skin obscured. It may be a minor detail, but representative, nonetheless, of the filmmakers behind the camera. The politics of sex is a major theme in the film, so there was no need to hide it. But if you're making a film concerning the experiences of women and are shooting sex, you should probably include her pov, too.
Surprisingly, the story does present the young woman's sexual agency in a positive light. The older woman ends up transforming into a sort of "Onibaba," as karmic punishment for trying to scare her daughter-in-law off of sex. The moral is a reversal of the traditional tales told by mothers to their daughters. What makes the older woman's choice interesting are her complex emotions behind it. She's envious of the other's youth, grieving her son's death, and desperate for self-preservation. Hachi may not be the ideal partner for the young woman, but he did assure the older woman that she won't be left behind to fend for herself. The again, can she really trust the murderous Hachi? Anyway, he's killed by another murderous thief in the end. One way or another, the "demons" come for everyone in the film. The form they take is immaterial in a lethal cycle of self-interest.
This has been day 5 of 31 days of horror. For the complete schedule see here.