Directed by Kaneto Shind
Starring Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Sato
Tall reeds sway back and forth hypnotically, amongst the reeds a samurai helps his wounded comrade as they limp along slowly. Hidden from chasing samurai on horses by the height of the reeds they crash to the floor exhausted. After a rest they start up to continue their journey, rising up slowly only to be cut down, mortally wounded by two spears shooting out from the reeds that had been so protective and had hidden them so well from their pursuers.
Two women, one obviously a lot older than the other creep out from the reeds, poking and prodding the bodies of their victims.ensuring that they are dead. Armour and weapons along with robes are removed before the corpses are dragged to a deep dark foreboding hole where they are unceremoniously dumped with only the crows for company.
The women gather up the booty and return to their ramshackle hut where they collapse after the exhaustion and excitement of the kill. Tomorrow they will trade the weapons, clothing and armour for a pitiful amount of food. This is the base level of existence they have come to after years of war and destruction in 16th century Japan.
The men-folk have been dragged off to fight for a Samurai overlord, left to their own defences they have managed to survive, this nameless mother and daughter in law. The trader who metes out a couple of miserable bags of millet for their hard earned prize is a nasty little piece of work who offers the mother an extra bag if shell sleep with him, she has a little pride left and gives a straightforward no. They have enough to survive on until the next victims appear.
Back from the war after escaping his unit comes their neighbour Hachi, he had been taken at the same time as the son / husband. After eating several bowls of food he relayed the story of how they both escaped from the field of battle only for the other to be beaten to death by a group of farmers after they were caught foraging for food. The first reaction from the two women is anger and bitterness at the news of the death, the loss of the husband / son is a blow to them both and Hachi takes the brunt of their anger.
Despite the bitter feelings they work together, continuing in the same trade of supplying weapons and armour to the trader though with Hachi on board, they get a far better deal. Hachi has his eye on the recently widowed young woman and she responds, the older woman can see whats going on and decides to intervene. She tries to put off the younger woman by telling her that hes only out for one thing and that if she does go with him shell end up in purgatory with very descriptive examples of the tortures that await her there.
The longing for male companionship is too strong though and the young woman and Hachi arrange illicit rendezvous while the older woman is asleep. This goes on for a while and they enjoy the warmth and touch of each others passion and longing but one night, the young woman is followed by the older one. She spies them in a passionate embrace until she is overwhelmed by her own sexual feelings and frustrations, running off through the long reeds determined more than ever to end this relationship.
Why? Her son is dead, her daughter in law a widow. Why is she so determined to tear the lovers apart? One reason is jealousy, the younger woman is desirable and despite being older, she still wants and needs sexual gratification. Another reason is fear, while she has the daughter in law; she has company and someone to help her in their dirty business. She knows shell never manage to murder and plunder on her own, which is exactly where she can see herself if Hachi has his way.
Events take a turn when the older woman is forced to help a wealthy samurai who is lost within the wild reeds, she notes his demonic face mask and slowly but surely leads him closer and closer to the hole, at the last second she skips across it, the samurai fails to notice and falls to his death. Clambering into the blackness and over the piles of skeletal corpses, she reaches her goal and removes the mask from the samurais heavily scarred face.
She has a plan and the mask is a vital part of it, a plan to scare the hell out of the younger woman and regain the control shes losing, but things dont turn out quite as she expects!
This is a classic film by any standards, the acting especially from is Nobuko Otowa is outstanding, you get a real sense of the danger, the desperation, the anger, fear and frustration. The editing and camera work are also excellent, a lot of the filming is done at night time but is still clear enough to follow everything. The atmosphere is heady, you feel the humidity and the relief that the rain brings, the tall reeds, both friend and enemy, a defensive cover but also a cover for those waiting to attack or surprise.
Onibaba is an outstanding film in every department and one that I heartily recommend.
BBFC rated 15
R1 ntsc dvd available from Criterion and a slightly better (though both are of a very high standard) R2 Pal dvd is available from Eureka Masters of Cinema Series.