In feudal Japan, war is being waged between Imperial forces loyal to the reigning emperor and those who support the shogun. Samurai warriors wearing expensive armor and carrying powerful weapons fight side by side with peasant farmers conscripted into military service. Amid this bloody chaos women, children and the elderly suffer unimaginable horrors including rape, disease and widespread famine.

This is the grim backdrop of Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba (1964), a bleak, sensual and bone-chilling horror film currently available on the Criterion Channel at FilmStruck. Some critics disagree over the classification of Onibaba but there is no escaping the film’s callous brutality amid otherworldly beauty. Shindô’s nightmare-inducing vision, depicting the ravages of war on an isolated rural community, is rooted in Buddhist tales and Japanese folklore where terrifying demons haunt the living and possess the dead.

The film begins with a vicious murder. While making their way through a dense field of tall grass, two fugitive samurai are impaled on spears by hidden aggressors. Their killers are women who strip the corpses before dumping them in a deep, dark hole that lays agape eagerly awaiting more cadavers. The hole is representative of many things in this multilayered fable including the hungry mouths of the two women who kill samurai in order to sell their armor and weapons for food. The starving women are a cheerless middle-aged mother (Nobuko Otowa) and her feral daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) who anxiously await the return of a son and husband. The missing man is a reluctant soldier forced to fight alongside his male neighbor (Kei Satō) in a war no one seems to understand or sympathize with. When their neighbor returns home alone the women are devastated.

Believing her husband dead, the grieving widow begins to develop feelings for the neighbor that erupt in a volcanic fury of untapped carnal desire. The older woman grows jealous of the young couple and worries that she will be left alone to fend for herself if they marry so when an opportunity to encroach on their happiness presents itself she takes it. Donning a fearsome mask that belonged to one of her hapless murder victims, the woman pretends to be a wraith-like demon and terrorizes her unsuspecting daughter-in-law. Regrettably, the demonic mask has its own agenda that reveals itself during the film’s horrific climax.

Onibaba was written and directed by Kaneto Shindô and is loosely based on the Buddhist parable Yome-odoshi no oni no men (also known as A Mask with Flesh Scared a Wife or The Devil Mask of Daughter-in-Law Intimidation), which tells the story of a resentful old woman who disguises herself as a demon to discourage her daughter-in-law from visiting a local temple. Shindô’s screenplay also resembles the plot of Noh plays that incorporate the frightful Hannya mask. Hannya are female figures that have been transformed into evil spirits due to annihilating feelings of jealousy, obsession, and rage.

Shindô and his cinematographer (frequent collaborator Kiyomi Kuroda) shot the film in high-contrast black and white to emphasize the screenplay’s historical backdrop and desolate setting. Most of the action takes place in an isolated swamp area surrounded by a tall, swaying susuki grass (a type of Japanese pampas grass), bordered by a shallow river. Despite the film’s natural location, the marshland forms a structured setting that mimics a traditional haunted house with its puzzle box layout, hidden rooms, disorientating hallways and cryptic basement represented by the ominous black hole that contains the skeletal remains of the murdered samurai.

The film’s abrasive score by composer Hikaru Hayashi’s may seem at odds with Shindô’s formal filmmaking but it compliments the dissonant drama. Hayashi and Shindô wisely choose to combine elements of modern jazz with ceremonial taiko drums and natural sounds such as birds and insects to produce a distinct aural experience. The effect is deeply unsettling and a constant reminder of the film’s folk horror origins.

I’ve singled out the horror elements in Onibaba but it can be appreciated as a potent anti-war allegory with strong socialist themes. Born in Hiroshima in 1921, Shindô was drafted into the Japanese Navy during WWII where he experienced the conflict firsthand. The destruction and devastation he witnessed on his return equally left its mark and one of his earliest films (Children of Hiroshima [1952]) depicts the atomic bomb’s terrible impact on his birthplace. In the director’s two horror films set in medieval Japan (Onibaba and Kuroneko [1968]), Shindô portrays samurai warriors as brutal savages or inept bumblers and the violence they dispense is ill-conceived and all-consuming. His characters are also victims of war and openly criticize their government. In Onibaba Shindô expands on this idea by making all the male characters in the film devious and unreliable brutes. The women may be murderers but their crimes are understandable when food is scarce and human carnage is condoned and commonplace.

Shindô was a socialist and his sympathies lie with the poor farmers and laborers in his films who suffer at the whim of war-mongering emperors and shogun. In a 1975 interview with film scholar Joan Mellen, Shindô expanded on these ideas explaining:

“Speaking about Onibaba in particular, my main historical interest focuses on ordinary people . . . their energy to carry themselves beyond the predicaments they encounter daily. I wish to describe the struggles of the so-called common people, which usually never appear in recorded history. This is why I made Onibaba. My mind was always on the commoners, not on the lords, politicians, or anyone of name and fame. I wanted to convey the lives of down-to-earth people who have to live like weeds.”
– Director Kaneto Shindô

Described by The Exorcist (1973) director William Friedkin as a “masterpiece of horror and suspense,” Onibaba makes for perfect viewing in October. I suggest pairing it with Shindô’s Kuroneko, which also features a mother and her daughter-in-law but this time they’re unforgiving spirits seeking revenge for horrible crimes committed against them. The two films would make a haunting Halloween double-feature.

by Kimberly Lindbergs

Note: originally published in 2018 on FilmStruck.com