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Monday, October 4, 2010

October Horror Movie of the Day #4 - Onibaba

The Film: Onibaba
The Director: Kaneto Shindo
The Cast: Nobuko Otowa, Jitusko Yoshimura, Kei Sato
Release Date: November 21, 1964

(This post, while serving as part of (O)PP's October Horror Series, is also designed as part of the Final Girl Film Club!  I usually drop these FG bombs over at my blog, but tonight - y'all gets some too!  Check it out, then head on over to Final Girl and check out what other fine feathered finks* have to say about the film!)

* denotes that those fine feathered finks might just be normal blogger people.

Onibaba is one heck of a strange movie.  Set in war-time Japan, the film focuses on a  old woman and her daughter in law who are struggling to survive in their minuscule hut.  By struggling to survive, I mean they're dispatching of rogue samurai in a giant pit, and then selling their weapons to make money.  But when the younger woman becomes interested in a local man whose animal lust quickly flips her freak flag, tensions begin to rise.  In the meantime, a soldier wearing a hideous demon mask shows up to torture the old woman, but the tables are quickly turned against him.  The old woman, does the most logical thing - takes the demon mask and tries to scare her daughter-in-law away from sexing and leaving her alone.

(The title - Onibaba - is taken from Japanese folklore, and is not to be confused with Baba Yaga (which is a child-eating witch from Slavic folklore).  The Onibaba was a human-eating demon, like the one shown in the film, that resembled and old woman with wild hair, large eyes, and a crazy grin on her face.)

The most shocking thing about Onibaba is certainly not the demon, it's the amount of sexual content for a film made nearly 50 years ago.  The film is an obvious morality tale, but the frankness of it all really surprised me.  Hachi is an entirely sexual creature, and the young woman seems to be completely changed by her encounters with him.  There's a small part of the brain that considers the old woman's plan to be for a good cause - the actions of the lovers can't be completely right - but it's only a small part of the story.

The film's horror trappings are most impressive, particularly when the old woman dons the mask and becomes Onibaba.  The swamp setting adds to the tension, and the music used - specifically a repeating drum cadence followed by a maniacal scream - adds to the nightmarish feel of the film.

I admired Onibaba greatly from a technical standpoint, but I'm not sure it will become a favorite of mine.  The film runs a little slow for its 102 minute length, and it's a long time into the film before the mask becomes a part of the story.  Like most Japanese cinema of the era, the actors seem to be overplaying their emotions a little too much for me, but that's just a personal preference.  The final scenes added greatly to my enjoyment of the film, but the whole product left me a little less happy than I'd have expected.  I can't really explain it...It's just that it took too long to make me care about what it was doing.  By the time the demon face showed up, I was out of the film.

Maybe the film just hasn't translated well over the years, but it still has a lot of power at a lot of moments.  I recommend it to any horror historian, as it's an incredibly relevant piece of international horror.  I'll probably revisit it some day - those visuals of the demon are fabulous enough for that - but I'm not salivating over it like I hoped I would.