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Film / Onibaba

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Yeah, I wouldn't have put that on.
"People are both the devil and god—and are truly mysterious"
—Writer/Director Kaneto Shindo

Onibaba (鬼婆) AKA Demon Hag is a Japanese Psychological Horror samurai film from 1964, written and directed by Kaneto Shindo. It is based on an old Buddhist Fable, but the film is notable for its uncompromising modern vision, including frank depictions of sexuality and ruthless female power, fast cuts, slow motion, unusual angles, and a frantic soundtrack mixing natural sounds and traditional drumming.

It was filmed in a field of high susuki grass, meaning that neither the characters or the camera were able to see more than a few feet, which helped to create a claustrophobic, entrapping effect. The action takes place during one of the many bloody wars of Japan's feudal period, but centers around a small group of poor fishing villagers who must eke out an existence on the outskirts of the brutal war, highlighting the social conflict between the ruling samurai and the poor farmers on whom they built their empires.

An older woman and a young woman await the return of Kichi, respectively the older's son and younger's husband, who was taken away to fight in the war. The two women have been surviving by murdering wandering soldiers and giving their armor to a secondhand dealer. The man's friend and fellow soldier, Hachi, returns and tells the two women that Kichi was killed on the way back. Eventually the younger woman and Hachi embark on an affair, which the older woman doesn't like at all, leading to dark consequences.

The iconic mask inspired the design of the demon in The Exorcist. Also, the film is named after creatures in Japanese folklore, which you can find here.

Onibaba provides examples of:

  • Ambiguous Ending: The film ends with the young woman leaping over the pit, and the older woman coming after her. However, the film cuts to black before we see the older woman landing on the other side, leaving open the possibility that she fell into the pit and died.
  • Arms Dealer: Ushi, the shady merchant to whom the women (and other people in the area) sell the armour and weapons of their victims.
  • Becoming the Mask: Literally, when Kichi's mother's attempt to scare her daughter-in-law backfires.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The Japan of Onibaba has been torn apart by a bloody civil war that has led to widespread death and famine, so virtue among the population is in shorter supply than food. Unable to farm, Kichi's widow and mother ambush and murder wandering samurai to loot their bodies for goods to sell for food, tossing the dead bodies into a giant pit. Hachi is a deserter who wastes no time romancing Kichi's widow (who is only too happy to reciprocate). Ushi takes advantage of the local peasants' desperation to indulge in price-gouging (unless the women are willing to sleep with him).
  • Catapult Nightmare: The young woman has a dream of the demon.
  • Clingy Costume: After a while, the mask doesn't want to come off.
  • Cool Mask: The mysterious samurai Kichi's mother leads through the susuki grass wears one of these, supposedly to protect his handsome face.
  • Crapsack World: The peasants are trying to survive while surrounded by armies who destroy their fields, take their crops, steal their daughters, conscript their sons, and where wandering deserters haunt the roads.
  • Creepy Crows: Are there crows hanging out by the hole where the women throw soldiers' corpses? Of course there are. Later Hachi sees them flying up out of the hole after presumably snacking on what's at the bottom.
  • Dangerous Deserter: Groups of them pass through regularly, and they're often hungry. Hachi himself is one of them; despite being somewhat more sympathetic than the norm, he is still a desperate, untrustworthy criminal. The clothes he wears belonged to a Buddhist priest he killed so that he could move about more safely.
  • Death by Irony: Hachi deserted the army because he did not want to be killed in the war. He's ultimately killed by another deserter who broke into his hut to steal some food.
  • Demonic Possession: Possibly, if one subscribes to the theory that the mask is indeed cursed.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: The random deserter who shows up at Hachi's hut out of nowhere, and kills Hachi when he returns.
  • Downer Ending: By the end of the film, Hachi has been killed by a fellow deserter and Kichi's mother's face has been horribly scarred by the demon mask (and she may or may not take a fatal fall into the pit where she and Kichi's widow dump the bodies they have looted), leaving Kichi's widow alone to face an uncertain future.
  • Dramatic Unmask: The older woman finally manages to yank the mask off the samurai's face, only to find that he is badly deformed. At the end, after the younger woman resorts to whacking the mask off the older woman's face with a mallet, she is horribly deformed as well.
  • Evil Mask: The mask eventually leaves its wearers horribly mangled, and may even turn them into demons.
  • Fanservice: Multiple shots of both women topless in their hut, sex scenes between the young woman and Hachi, Hachi clad only in a loincloth, Hachi and the young woman running naked through the grass and rice fields. This was one of the first movies in Japanese history to have significant nudity.
  • Fanservice Extra: Ushi the fence has a naked lady lounging around in his dirty little cave.
  • Ghostly Glide: OK, so the older woman is using the mask to scare the younger woman, but that doesn't really explain how she glides like that.
    • It doesn’t really make sense if she’s still a human being. But consider the interpretation that the mask is in fact supernatural and has begun turning her into an actual demon and her abilities make sense.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: All of the main characters (and it's implied everyone else as well, with the scene of Hachi coming across an old woman and a young girl outside Ushi's cave carrying weapons and armor in baskets on their backs) survive by killing passing soldiers and selling their weapons and armor to a guy who sells it back to passing armies. This would be pretty "black," but it's clear that the endless wars are to blame for reducing the characters to this almost animalistic existence.
  • Hollywood Darkness: There must be a full moon every night, because it's always pretty well lit, with beams of light on the two women in their hut as they sleep. There's even a spotlight on the Pit Trap in the final scene.
  • I'll Be in My Bunk: The older woman fondles her breasts and then humps a tree after watching the younger woman have sex with Hachi.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Or eat the dog, if you're two peasant women on the ragged edge of starvation.
    • In another scene, Hachi and the two women watch as two soldiers are fighting in a river. After a while, one of the soldiers swims towards them and begs for help, only for Hachi to kill him with a spear. Meanwhile, the women go after the other soldier and drown him.
  • Lovable Rogue: Hachi (at least, the girl seems to think so).
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The film offers to kinds of explanation as to why the mask won't come off. The supernatural explanation is that this is the result of a curse or some sort of divine punishment. The mundane explanation is that the mask simply got sticky after being exposed to rain (or, alternatively, that the old woman contracted a skin disease from the samurai who previously owned the mask). In the end, it is left up to the viewer to decide which of these is the more likely.
  • Meadow Run: The young woman likes to go dashing through the tall grass to Hachi's hut for sex. Later the two engage in a nude Meadow Run through the grass and the rice paddies.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Jitsuko Yoshimura, who plays the younger woman, is downright gorgeous and the film offers us several scenes of her both partially and fully nude.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Kichi's mother makes a pass at Hachi. It's equal part lust and fear of Hachi and the younger woman pairing off and leaving her behind.
  • No Name Given: The woman and her daughter-in-law are never named.
  • Not Worth Killing: When the samurai tells the woman to show him the road to Kyoto, she says that he'll kill her after she does. He asks what the point of that could possibly be.
  • Pit Trap: Deviously hidden in the high grass.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Kichi's death in the war, as related to his mother and his widow by Hachi, is the catalyst for the turns the plot takes after the setting is established; now that his widow is unattached, she and Hachi begin a romance, which sends Kichi's mother into a jealous rage (out of a combination of her own desire for Hachi and fear of being left to fend for herself) and leads her to use the demon mask to scare her daughter-in-law into leaving Hachi.
  • Repeat Cut: The final shot of the older woman's ghastly face as she leaps over the Pit Trap is repeated six times, as she screams that she's not a demon, before the film cuts to black.
  • Rōnin: The creepy mask guy is a samurai who fled after his army was defeated in battle.
  • Rule of Three: Three times, the older woman dons the demon mask to scare her daughter-in-law and prevent her from sleeping with Hachi. Two times, she succeeds. On the third night, however, the younger woman's passion proves to be stronger than her fear, and she ends up having sex with Hachi right in the middle of the field. The older woman decides to give up after this — and then it turns out that the mask won't come off ...
  • Untranslated Title: "Demon Hag", actually a Japanese myth.
  • War for Fun and Profit: While everyone else is just hoping for the war to be over soon, Ushi seems to delight in it — after all, it's good for his business.
  • War Is Hell: One of the film's central themes is how the common people suffer under the wars started by the ruling class, as they are left with nothing and forced to become ruthless murderers out of sheer neccessity for survival.