Sometimes films are best consumed without prior knowledge or preconceptions. It focusses your mind to find the real story behind the plot and makes every revelation hit harder. The only two things I knew about this classic film before going in were: that it features a creepy mask and that it is a horror. I was only half right. Although it plays with elements of many genres (erotic thriller, family drama, supernatural horror), it wouldn't do justice to define it as just one thing.
Onibaba is the story of two women - an older woman and her daughter-in-law - and how their lives are changed by the return from war of a local man. But they are no helpless dependents themselves. Nobuko and Jitsuko (they are unnamed in the film, so I'll use actor's names) have survived in a war-torn Japan by finishing-off the weak and injured warriors who stumble through their grassland home, selling the weapons and armour for food.
Bringing news that the son/husband has died in battle, the neighbour Hachi wastes no time moving in on the young widow, to the disgust of her mother-in-law Nobuko. It is the interplay between these three characters that keeps you gripped for the entire 102 minutes. Whether Nobuko is genuinely protective of her family, or just acting on selfish and jealous impulses, remains ambiguous. What's clear is that she will go to horrifying lengths to keep the young couple apart. When she steals a demonic mask from a murdered samurai, she devises to dress up as an Onibaba, or 'Demon Hag', scaring Jitsuko away from her night-time conjugal visits. But at what personal cost?
The black and white visuals strip everything back, so you are always focused on the character's expressions and their place within the frame. In fact, there are very few wide shots without a figure in the foreground, and virtually no aerial/establishing views. Thematically, this creates a claustrophobic and impenetrable sea of grass, enclosing everyone within. The grass sea is a character of it's own. In close-ups, it writhes in the wind, like flames in hell. It's a spiders web, an infinite prison. When Jitsuko sprints through the grass at night we hear animal noises, as though she is acting on her most primal, base instincts.
As well as the terrifying mask, there are other horrors to be found in this apocalyptic landscape. Hidden in the depths of the reedbed is a vast black pit, unexplained and seldom spoken of - a mystery that we are introduced to at the very opening of the film. It is ominous and seemingly supernatural. It swallows the women's victims, but surely can't be of their own creation?
After heavy editing by the BBFC, a version of the film was eventually neutered enough for UK release. A twist on a traditional, moralistic Japanese fable, Onibaba shows us a world that is disturbingly amoral. The trio judge and condemn each other, yet commit heinous acts without reproach. In reality, it seems to be the inanimate forces who have the power to judge good from evil.
I think it is telling when a film is scored highly with both critics (83% Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (8.0 IMDb) alike. It uses compelling storytelling with complex characters and beautiful, meaningful visuals - the print on BFI player is a fantastic restoration as you can see. This is not one to be missed, even if we're over 50 years late to the party.
Verdict: 4/4 bags of millet