It’s time for another entry for Final Girl Film Club. Stacie Ponder chose a classy movie to watch this time to make up for the abortion that was Hellbound. Today’s film, Onibaba (1964) is from Japan and is part of the Criterion Collection. I felt so classy watching this that I put on a top hat and two monocles.
The story is simple. It’s medieval Japan and the country is in a civil war. A mother and her daughter-in-law are starving with the son/husband out fighting. They kill samurais who get lost in the very tall grass around their hut and then sell their stuff for grain. Their next-door-neighbor, Hachi, comes back from the war but the son doesn’t. What results is lust, jealousy, and rage. The daughter-in-law and Hachi start a relationship. The mother-in-law is angry that her son is dead and also jealous of their relationship. She starts to talk to the daughter-in-law about hell and sinners so it seems like good luck when she kills a samurai wearing a demon mask. She scares her daughter-in-law with the mask but the mask is haunted.
The movie sounds simple, but it’s intense and has layers like an onion. I’m certain that I didn’t understand everything with just one viewing. I wouldn’t say that it was scary the way a contemporary scary movie is scary but there was definitely tension. Part of that comes from the fact that the mother-in-law and daughter live in this tiny little hut in the middle of this field of hugely tall grass. There are references to the fact that no farm work is going on since the men are at war. There are lots of shots of the grass spreading out and rustling in the wind and you can’t help but feel overwhelmed and smothered by it. Plus, who knows what lives in it.
Then there’s the music. It’s hard to describe because I don’t know all the instruments that were used. All I recognized were a taiko drum and maybe a flute? There’s the rustling of the grass in the background, but at moments the drum would start up like a heart-beat and there were these scratching noises. In my last post about The Stepfather I discussed how the film-makers used too much music to fill every second of the movie. I wish they had seen Onibaba and realized the value of quietness. Or really good sound effects. At one point, the mother-in law goes into this pit where they’ve been hiding the bodies of the samurais. It’s huge and full of bones and is intensely creepy looking and the idea of walking on all of those bones squicks me out.
But the worst part was the sound, they had this perfect crunching noise that wasn’t too loud.
Aside from being spooky the movie was actually beautifully shot. I don’t really have a filmmaker’s vocabulary but I do paint so when I see a scene I tend to think of composition in terms of composing a picture to paint. There’s a spareness to the scenes that makes you feel isolated and reminds me of Andrew Wyeth while the dramatic lighting reminds me of Edward Hopper. Some shots that I particularly liked:
Honestly, I was a little nervous about watching this movie. All my experience with Japanese movies of this era are from MST3K episodes. Literally, all I’ve seen are Prince of Space, Invasion of the Neptune Men, Gamera vs. Guiron, and Godzilla vs. Megalon. It was such a relief to see a movie that didn’t feature shrill school-children in tiny shorts with level-five security clearance. Or stock footage of actual WWII bombings in a CHILDREN’S movie like Invasion of the Neptune Men actually used. In honor of this happy occasion, I’m posting one of my favorite host segments from Invasion of the Neptune Men. Time to learn about Noh theater.
I wouldn’t say that this movie is a light, popcorn movie but it’s definitely interesting and worth your time. In fact, I plead with you to watch it.
- Scarina--the authoress and editrix of this site. I like scary movies and have dedicated my free time to cataloging horror--the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes there are books too.
There's film criticism, literary criticism, and humor here. I can be highbrow but there's lots of pop culture too. And feminism.
I fervently love "Twin Peaks" and wish it were a real place so I could move there. I can't list my favorite scary movies because they change depending on my mood, the season, and how much coffee I've had.
I'm an artist looking for ways to blend creepy with cute. I try to channel my childhood nightmares, my love of horror, and my experiences with sleepy paralysis.
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