The word Aaru, in the Egyptian mythology, means “reed” and the “Fields of Reed” are a heavenly paradise where Osiris rules. The same fields of reed, however, depicted as a dominant habitat in Onibaba, describe a hell bound, abominable place in the middle of a civil war. This Shindô-like contrast aside, let’s try to look further in this holy grail from 1964.
After the success of The Naked Island that literally saved his own studio, the independent company Kindai Eiga Kyôkai from bankruptcy, Kaneto Shindô is at the top of his style with his masterpiece, Onibaba. He is the epitome of the power stripped to the movies, one might say.
Onibaba (The Demoness) is another story about nothing, but not a Seinfeldish “nothing” of course, so it’s not for everyone; especially not for the young viewers who seek action and thrill. The movie takes place in the middle of nowhere, a place seemingly abandoned by God. Three characters emerge, having especially no particularity at all, except the fact that they all must do abominable things in order to find food, in order to survive.
This “nowhere”, however, has a timeframe anchored in the 14thcentury, during the civil war in feudal Japan. The characters in the movie kill and rob the samurai from their armor, only to sell these valuable armors for food.
The great thing about Kaneto Shindô is his gift for creating a story with no visible suspense, which can be described as a wave that only explodes in the final image and only makes sense at the end. As a perfect art of repetition, the immutable cycle of simple lives, a repetitive impression is how the film leads to this overwhelming “nothing”. A tiny act, a minimal event that strips the ceremony too well installed to the end. Finally flew a brutal brute force of humanism, like a simple free and random breeze that constantly blows into the reeds well rooted without ever creating the same movement, which is the key image of the film.
An erotic drama, a libertarian pamphlet, a manifesto of social revolt and a fantasy film, Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba is a film on which time (it was released in 1964) has not diminished neither the scope nor the power. Onibaba brings to the sensual imagery of his filmmaker a subversive discourse that by this, allows him to be quite in phase with the directors of the then emerging Japanese New Wave, namely Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura.
In this film, the two main female characters live in isolation, reclusive in a swamp, completely autonomous compared to a feudal Japan in the middle of the war. The latter only manifests itself in the form of lost soldiers or fugitive samurai, who will become into a hole (Onibaba) and trading in recovered armor.
Kaneto Shindô, instead of rushing into a social and politicized criticism, builds his reflection on the description of an ancestral world sublimated, natural and sensual in complete opposition with a modern and hierarchical society, while remaining as minimalist as possible. Using a murky eroticism that brings him closer to Yasuzo Masumura, his painting of these women with a rough sensibility turning into sexual and destructive passion.
“The frozen came around to circle snowflakes which are robbed”
Served admirably by a beautiful black & white photo, surrounding the bodies of a terribly erotic velvet case, cutting the night scenes like a knife, Onibaba is not only a film with a dreamlike atmosphere of the most involved but also a perfectly interpreted drama. The film also takes a long time to really become a horror movie. The horror will gradually emerge from the social situation of the characters as well as from the erotic tension of the mother, daughter-in-law, lover trio whose rivalries, fascinations are exacerbated by the drought. Everyone will then suffer the cruel revenge of the spirit world.
But Onibaba is also a beautiful festival of sound. The Shock of free Jazz Saxos and African percussions plunge us into a world of voodoo, the primitive aura where instinct reigns supreme. The fields create oppressive noises when the characters make a passage of the wind blowing on them.
Each scene seems framed like a painting and Shindô makes a virtuoso use of the scope. The passionate race of the daughter-in-law to her lover through the fields is an opportunity for quick travellings reflecting the vivacity of the sexual desire. The superb chiaroscuro photography of the nocturnal scenes makes the appearance of the ghosts even more frightful.