Kaneto Shindō’s Onibaba (1964) is an allegorical tale of transformation and uncovered deception. The narrative is set in rural 14th-century Japan during civil war between rivalling shogunates. Two women, a middle-aged mother (played by Shindô’s business partner and future wife Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law, (Jitsuko Yoshimura) scavenge to survive. Their modus operandi is to lie in wait in towering susuki fields (Japanese pampas grass) until unsuspecting samurais exhausted by the war pass. Then the women attack. They spear and kill the warriors then strip them for their clothes and swords that can be traded for meagre bags of millet. Systematically they work together to drag their prey to a deep hole and fling them in. Back at their hut they eat, rest, exchange their goods with a covert vendor and await new victims.
This stark austerity is caused by a war that is not the women’s but the generals’ and emperors’ higher up in the social order. But it is the overlooked world of the women that becomes Shindō’s focus. They are not condemned, after all they are doing what their male compatriots are doing a few miles away on the battlefields. Instead, their actions are portrayed as part of a world turned upside down where morality mutates, frost in summer ruins crops, a horse gives birth to a cow and the sun rises black in the sky. It is into this strange yet matter-of-fact cycle that Shindō injects a surreal depiction of erotic desire and a seemingly supernatural twist.
Tension in the film arises when this need for physical survival is met with erotic desire. When Hachi (Kei Satô) returns from fighting in Kyoto without the younger woman’s husband her mother-in-law is forced to consider life without her when she predicts she might leave with Hachi. The consequences are life-threatening, and a game of cat and mouse begins as the mother tries to keep her close. Here, Shindō moulds a childhood Buddhist fable warning against duplicity for his own means. In Onibaba, truthfulness is about finding the limits of your own freedom in an unfathomable moral sea.
The bleak brutality and violence is echoed in the stylistic choices for the film. The soundtrack scored by long-time Shindô collaborator Hikaru Hayashi provides minimal drum rhythms that are remindful of a racing heartbeat or blood pumping through the body. They harness a sense of survival of the fittest or the shrewdest. Like the sound, the mise en scène is pared down to eerie glimpses of sky, smothering fields of pampas grass, small stretches of water and caves. Close-up shots of the reeds make the most of their animistic qualities. Taller than a man or a woman, they seem to move of their own volition, animated and magical. Filmed from overhead they become an uncanny engulfing swell that can carry you along to meet concealed malign forces. This is where exhilaration and terror meet: what will these enigmatic grasses reveal?