Sometimes, I think that the striking visuals of many black-and-white Japanese movies came easily (or easier) because of the stark and uncluttered “traditional” (pre-Meiji modernization) buildings. “Onibaba” (a 1964 movie written and directed by Shindô Kaneto [1912-2012]) has striking visuals primarily of tall susuki grass and a riverbank and of two masked characters (both using the same mask). The interiors are mud-and-thatch huts. They are relatively cluttered and lack the geometry of sliding rice-paper panels. In short, they are not as photogenic as many more austere sets in Japanese movies, yet the movie still has very striking images.
The peasant characters in rural Japan during the “warring state period” of the 14th century, have shelter (though it looks not very winter-proof!). They concentrate on other elemental needs: food and sex. Given that the wars have made it impossible to grow crops, the way they obtain food is novel. The other need is accomplished a more usual way (by duplicity). Even revealing what is going on in the mysterious first scene seems plot-spoiling to me…
The movie opens as two samurai (identifiable by their armor) are thrashing through high grass. Each is stabbed, but not by the other. Then the viewer sees two women (the older portrayed by Otowa Nobuko [The Naked Island, Kuroneko], the younger by Yoshimura Jitsukon Pigs and Battleships]) strip the armor, sashes, and footwear, then dragging the corpses (with only fundoshis left to cover their nakedness) to a deep hole and dumping them in.
They trade the swords and armor with a stingy local dealer (Tonoyama Taiji) for two bags of millet. Killing samurai who wander into the high grass (or kill each other along the riverbank) are the quarry of the two women, and trading what they take from the corpses is how they keep from starving. A none-too-pretty job, dangerous, and not very lucrative…but predictable in that there is a continuous supply of samurai to hunt, while they are distracted with attempting to kill each other. (Not the hunter gets captured by the game, but that the samurai hunters are not aware that they might be game for other kinds of hunters, i.e., peasant women.)
The plot thickens when Hachi (Satô Kei) returns. He is a neighbor who had been dragooned into one army and then another and barely escaped being killed, as Kichi, the son of the older woman, who was also the husband of the younger one, was. The older woman hates him for daring to return without her son. He catches a fish, which supplements the diet of millet gruel of the women. This has a minimal effect on softening their view of him, but eventually the only youngish man and the only youngish woman in the area start copulating.
The older woman is resentful for several reasons and eventually attempts to scare her daughter-in-law off when the latter sneaks out at night to rub her body against Hachi’s. (Love and romance are not suggested, and the old woman has practical concerns about being left by her “business partner” on top of jealousy that the younger woman is getting sex and that the man is alive while her son isn’t.)
Even with a plot-spoiler alert, I don’t want to get into the horror movie aspects, other than to note that the horror is human, not supernatural. And I can say that the movie illustrates role-self merger (when one goes from playing a role to being played by it, that is, identified with the role by self and others), as in Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha.”
Life is war-plagued 14th-century Japan is portrayed (accurately, I don’t doubt) as nasty, brutish, and generally short. Striking as the high grasses with winds of different velocity moving them, I tired of the scenes of running through them at night. I think the movie would have been better if it were 20-30 minutes shorter (its run-time is 104 minutes).
There is a lot of psychology (not of all it seeming twisted) with raw characters (the women are often topless in everyday, unerotic ways). The visual compositions are quite sophisticated (not at all raw).
Hayahi Hikaru, who has scored most of Shindô’s films, provides some peculiar human voice sounds and intense percussion. Kiuroda Kiyomi, who had already shot two Shindo films and was to shoot ten more, provided some nocturnal horror film cinematography and many interestingly framed shots of the three main characters (and of some samurai duels).
In addition to an excellent print, Criterion has provided a 21-minute retrospect by Shinoda, whose memory at age 91 seemed not impaired in the slightest (he was 98 when he directed his last movie, and was planning another when he died a month past his 100th birthday, BTW). He explains his intent, praises the job everyone did working on the film, and some details about everyone involved living at the edge of the grasslands in a temporary dormitory (quonset hut). What he says is interspersed with production stills and apt clips from the film showing what he talks about. He says that since apprenticing himself to Mizoguchi Kenji, he’d written 250+ film scripts) and directed 74 (IMDB only lists 43, but often misses Asian/Pacific films.
The striking visuals seem characteristic of the 1960s Japanese movies I’ve seen (a very unrandom sample, I realize), including Shindô’s “The Naked Island” and “The Black Cat” (the only other Shindô films I’ve seen). Something that strikes me is that the samurai caste is demystified in one 1960s movie after another. There are individual noble samurai, but when they are shown, they are shown agonized about serving corrupt lords (usually lower-level functionaries, believing that “if only the lord or the shogun knew…”). Plus many of the movies are set in the 19th century, the declining years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and involve ronin (masterless samurai). The samurai in “Onibaba,” set long before the Pax Tokugawa (which began in 1603), are not individuated, but the point of view is also one denying nobility to the ready-to-die samurai following orders of leaders of no apparent nobility or concern about anything but their own power and glory. Distaste for heroics and keen recognition of the high cost vainglorious military leaders inflicted on low-rank samurai and the miserable population that had to pay for the armies and pageantry as well as be forced into being foot soldiers are leitmotifs of samurai films of the 1960s and later.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray