Few among you are likely to watch a Japanese film that doesn’t feature either copious amounts of kung fu or a large, fire-breathing lizard, but if you are ever so inclined to take a risk, Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba is just the sort of challenging, hypnotic work to justify your decision. Until its Criterion DVD release this month, I had never heard of Onibaba, or even Shindo for that matter, facts I am reluctant to admit in the face of my towering reputation (ha!) But now that I have seen what for me is an unheralded classic from the Far East, I am ready to add the filmmaker to my ever-increasing list of names to watch. The man is now in his nineties and won’t be producing further works, but I’ll be scanning the archives to see what other films are available. Based on my initial, purely gut reaction, Onibaba is a visual masterpiece, but also the sort of story that contains layer after layer of insight. I wouldn’t argue that I understood everything after one viewing, but I’m so intrigued that I want to read more reviews, scan a few clips, and even revisit the film in its entirety. It’s the sort of film made for contemplation; so mysterious and so blissfully unconcerned with immediate gratification that I have no doubt it will begin the slow climb up the list of films near and dear to my heart.
On its face, the film concerns a woman and her daughter-in-law as they eke out a brutal existence amidst tall grass and wandering samurai from distant battles. Having no real source of income or sustenance, the two hide among the swaying reeds and kill the unsuspecting samurai, selling their clothes and armor for food. After the bodies are stripped, they are tossed in a large pit where, we learn, dozens of such corpses have been thrown to rot away to mere bones. The women kill, strip, and sell without emotion or even the hint of a troubled conscience, as they are, in the final equation, less “murderers” than scrappy survivors. Their lives appear to be nothing more than eating, retrieving water, laying in wait, and bargaining with their stolen goods. Suddenly, a strange man appears, revealing himself to be a friend of the young woman’s husband, whom we learn has been killed in battle. The friend is now looking for food and quite possibly, a little more.
The man’s appearance sends the story into a decidedly erotic spin, exposing the buried desires of each woman as well as their competitive instincts. The mother, now past her “prime,” demands that the young girl stay away from the stranger, but naked lust dictates other behaviors. Each evening, while the mother pretends to sleep, the young girl slips away and runs — in an almost insane frenzy — to the man’s hut. She is insatiable to be sure, and the sexual escapades are quite graphic for the time. Not only do we see exposed breasts, but the coupling reveals an often ignored element of human sexuality — pure, inescapable need. An interview with the director (also featured on the disc) reveals the central importance of sex, for at bottom, what else is there? Perhaps when the trappings of civilization are laid bare, that is all we have to remind us of our existence.
But the older woman, perhaps out of spiteful jealousy and perhaps out of an unconscious desire to protect the memory of her now deceased son, tries to keep the two apart, although in a manner that cannot be anticipated. How she does and what happens to her as a result is a surprise worth experiencing for yourself, although it reveals nothing to say that it is based on a Buddhist legend. But this is not a “spiritual” journey in the conventional sense, as the characters reveal their beliefs in an indifferent cosmos on several occasions. As a character shouts, “I am a human being, not a demon” (context is vital here, however), revealing the essential humanism of the director’s vision. Who we are and what we become as we face the essence of survival become the only questions really worth asking.
No doubt I have done a disservice to the film by trying to reduce complex philosophical themes to a few paragraphs, but in my excitement I had to call attention to this film in whatever way I could. Again, the imagery of this film is among the best I have seen, for if cinema is anything, it is the power of the visual and the aural to create an overall sensation. Here we have a distinct world, different from any other I have ever seen, and despite its unfamiliarity in terms of my personal experience, it seems “comfortable” and reassuring. Whether one takes the film as an allegory or even literally (I would recommend the former, if only because truly active minds suffer so from the latter), these characters are fascinating to behold, as they make moral and ethical decisions that do not reduce the world to rigid dichotomies. Shindo, then, is far from a judgmental director (at least in this film) and would prefer that we accept all that we see so that nothing is filtered out as we watch. The whole is much more important than the individual parts, although I can experience those bits as satisfying in their own right.
Similar in vision and narrative to Woman in the Dunes, Onibaba surpasses that film because it is tighter and, in its own way, more accessible. Woman in the Dunes was not without interest (as a work of allegory itself), but Onibaba, for whatever reason, impacted my emotions as well as any intellectual appreciation. Therefore, it is more than mere “admiration” that has released this embarrassingly high level of gushing; it is visceral in the best sense. As much as I want to penetrate the workings of Shindo’s vision, I am just as content to convey the pleasure of having been entertained. Onibaba is cinema, then, in the best sense — moving, striking, honest, and devoid of pretense. The film aspires to be more than escape, but it achieves its goals, avoiding the pitfalls of so many that strive to be self-consciously “artsy.” Love, sex, desire, death, superstition, and the perils of age — perhaps all, perhaps none. But I’m still thinking, and that’s all anyone can ask from a work of art.