The final movie of 1964 is the Japanese movie “Onibaba” and again Japanese cinema is bent on impressing me. “Onibaba” is one of the best movies in 1964.
I cannot say I entirely understand the movie, there are layers here that are inaccessible for me, but even at face value this movie is awesome.
In a distant Japanese past the country is engulfed in a lengthy civil war. That happened a few times in Japanese history, but the circumstances are not so important. In this war an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter in law, the younger woman (Jitsuko Yoshimura) are hiding out in a large field of tall and dense susuki grass. Their livelihood is to trap and kill soldiers who seek refuge or get lost in the field. They strip the dead soldiers of armor and weapons and sell then to a shady dealer for basic foodstuff. The two women are never named, but they are crafty women, bent on survival and doing a good job at that in a difficult time.
One day their neighbor Hachi (Kei Satō) returns. He left some time ago with the son and husband of the two women and were drafted into the war. Eventually they were assaulted by farmers who had the audacity to defend their possessions from plundering soldiers and the younger woman’s husband was killed. Hachi made it home alone.
Hachi is not a great guy. Not objectively. Pretty disgusting actually. The older woman hates his guts for coming home without her son, but the younger woman is attracted to him because he is… well… a man. Soon they are forming a very sexual relationship behind the back of the fuming older woman.
One fateful night the older woman finds a way to scare her daughter in law into compliance when she finds a demonic mask. Only, this is not just a mask. It is a truly demonic mask…
There is a lot to love about this movie. Kaneto Shindo, the director, had his own production company, so he could ignore all the usual strictures on Japanese movies and film the story in a raw, brutal and direct style that gives the film an impact outside the usual scale for the period. The war is brutal, killing is easy and lives are cheap. The callousness with which human lives are dispensed with for simply livelihood is shocking, but also very convincing. In a very cold place we can understand the simple logic behind the actions of these two women.
This also goes for the raw sexuality between Hachi and the younger woman. There is not so much to explain: there is a woman and man, they have a sexual craving and they act on it. Is it good or bad? The older woman is against it, but not so much from a moral point of view, but because she hates his guts and wants to keep the girl for herself. To her, Hachi is a rival. We see everything, not because we are Peeping Toms, but because the style is raw and blunt.
Then there is the horror element. Life in the susuki grass field is pretty horrific, but the demonic mask adds another element. It gets stuck to face of the wearer and transforms the face to the horrific deformities suffered by nuclear attack victims. I am not entirely sure of the meaning of this. Could it be that the demonic mask unveils the monster beneath? Or that beneath demonic behavior and faces are vulnerable and scarred human beings? Not sure, but regardless the effect of the mask is terrifying.
Nobuko Otowa is awesome as the older woman and she would have been my suggestion for a Best Actress in 1964. If for no other reason, watch this movie for her.
Absolutely recommended, one of the best movies of 1964, and that concludes 1964 for me.