Logline: In medieval wartorn Japan, two women kill samurai and sell their belongings in order to survive.
Review: 1964 was a great year for Japanese art house cinema from which emerged two of my favorite films: Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes and Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba. Both films are wonderfully strange and unique but only one of them, Onibaba, is a horror film though not in the traditional sense. Based on a Buddhist tale, the story is rather simple but it is executed brilliantly.
The direction and black and white cinematography are excellent. The film is visually stunning. In fact, the visual compositions are so strong that the film could function without sound as a silent film. The seemingly endless hole in the ground, which the two women use to dispose of their victims, begins and ends the film. The grasses, which are shown throughout, blow restlessly in the wind as the characters access their own animalistic and sexual desires. The natural landscape is such a presence that the hole and grasses seem like secondary characters.
The film grapples with the very base elements of human existence: survival and sexual desire. The dynamic between the three main characters is fascinating to watch and the acting is superb. One of the film’s strengths is its atmosphere. The viewer feels as if they are there with the characters, living on the margins of a war torn wasteland.
The film’s effective soundtrack, composed by Hikaru Hayashi, combines jazz with Taiko drumming. It is strange music, befitting such an unusual film.
The film builds to an intense and disturbing conclusion. The demon mask is frightening in of itself. An erotic horror classic and one of my favorite films, Onibaba examines human nature and the devastating effects of war.
Rating (out of ****): ****