by Mark Howard Jones In 14th century war-torn Japan two nameless women – a mother and her daughter-in-law – eke out a living by scavenging off the samurai who wander into the huge wilderness of susuki grass where they live.
The deadly pair kill the disoriented warriors with spears that appear from nowhere out of the 10-foot tall walls of grass, stripping the bodies and dumping them in a seemingly bottomless pit. They sell the scavenged weapons and other belongings to a nearby trader for food.
One day a neighbour returns from the war with news that his friend, the women’s son and husband, is dead. The man then decides to join the women in their murderous enterprise.
Soon the younger woman is leaving the hut she shares with her mother-in-law each night, running through the midnight fields of grass to the man’s hut. There she spend the night having sex before returning home.
After having her own sexual advances to the man rejected, the mother-in-law is overwhelmed with sexual jealousy, deciding that if she can’t have him then neither will the younger woman.
She then decides to use a terrifying demon mask she steals from a dead samurai to frighten her daughter-in-law away from her sexual encounters.
Needless to say, the plan ends in tragedy.
Made in 1964 by Kaneta Shindo, the stunning monochrome photography of ‘Onibaba’ (Demon Hag) is both beautiful and eerie.
Filmed entirely on location during an allegedly tortuous shoot, the film has a unique atmosphere – quite unlike anything else you will see. The original Japanese title is slightly misleading as this certainly isn’t horror film, though it does have some horror elements in it.
It is more an exploration of the struggle to survive (which nudges up against greed), loneliness and raw lust.
By cocooning the characters in an isolated riverside marshland on which outside reality only rarely intrudes, Shindo focuses our attention on their inner world and the psycho-sexual dance that takes place between them. None of the characters is at all likeable but they are certainly compelling – at times you’ll feel like you shouldn’t be intruding on their private world but you’ll be hard pressed to tear yourself away.
It is impossible to imagine the film without the eerily waving sea of grass, lit in a stark Expressionist style. It both conceals terrible secrets from the characters while revealing them suddenly to us.
Though at one stage the director falls back on that good old cliche, a storm, to indicate the characters’ heightening inner turbulence the combination of lightning, rain and the waving grass provides a beautiful spectacle that somewhat undermines his intention.
The music and sound effects must also be mentioned. Hikaru Hayashi’s score mixes traditional Japanese drumming with western jazz to often startling results. And the sounds of cooing doves that accompany the young woman’s headlong lust-fuelled night-time journeys through waving grasses is very unsettling, if slightly puzzling.
I thought the fact that when I’d watched this film on BBC2 back in the 1970s it was on a portable television, alone in a darkened room, had been largely responsible for its highly charged atmosphere. But a recent viewing on digitally remastered DVD in broad daylight proved me very wrong.
For years this film was unobtainable in the UK but it is now available on both DVD and BluRay formats.