I first came across Onibaba at a local video store a few years after graduating from college. I had already gone through my Kurasawa film student phase, and while doing so I had read about this horror/fable by Japanese filmmaker Kaneto Shindo. So when I saw it next to Ran and Yojimbo up there on the shelf, I grabbed it.
I was also a fan of Japanese mythology and history at the time, and I was interested to find out that the film was adapted from a Buddhist fable called "A Mask With Flesh Scared a Wife". Loosely adapted. In the fable, a woman tries to prevent her virtuous daughter from going to the temple (I have no idea why) by donning a demon's mask to scare her. The daughter's faith winds up being stronger than her fear of the demon, and she continues to go to the temple. As a punishment, Buddha bonds the demon mask to the mother's face so that she would forever be a monster.
Kaneto Shindo took that fable and added a whole lot of sexy-sexy fun time to it for his film.
In his version, a woman and her son's wife are eking out an existence in a hellish war between two rival factions in medieval Japan. They trap and kill injured or lost samurai in this crazy tall-grass swamp that they live in. They then steal the warrior's possessions and sell them for food.
The woman's son has been away fighting in the war. Suddenly a neighbor, and a friend to the son, arrives at their hut with stories of war and death. The son's death, to be specific. Now this guy ain't no prize. He's shiftless and lazy, and he's got lusty eyes for his buddy's young widow. But he's the only swinging dick for miles, so both ladies start to get the hots for him almost immediately.
Every night, the young widow blasts off through the reeds in an exhilarating mad dash to her new lover's hut. She's terrified of being out at night among the tall grass...the scene of many of her own past indiscretions...but the thrill of some quickie boom-boom with the slob is enough to keep her going. Her mother-in-law isn't fooled for a moment. Having followed her to the pig's hut, she begins to try to sway the man from continuing the relationship. Even offering her own body to him instead. "I'm not old on the inside!" she pleads, but he is having nothing of it.
During one of the nights when her daughter-in-law is with her new lover, an odd samurai in a demon's mask intrudes on the woman in her hut. He only wants directions to the main road to Kyoto, but there is something sinister and tragic about him. He refuses to take off the mask, saying that he is so handsome that it would break the woman's heart. Not trusting him to leave her alive after showing him his way, the woman tricks him into falling into the scariest pit ever. It's so deep you can hear an echo, and it's in the middle of this field of tall grass with no warning that it's coming up. I'd put some kind of fence around this thing if I were these ladies.
She gets some rope and climbs down to find him among the other bodies that she and her daughter-in-law have been disposing after their kills. After finally determining that he is dead, she tries to pry the mask off of his face. But it appears to be stuck. After much effort she gets it off, but his supposedly handsome face has been terribly scarred. He is hideous. But the mask gives the woman an idea. This is where the fable I mentioned comes in.
She begins to wear the mask and some odd kabuki outfit to scare the young widow each night as she runs to her slob of a lover. And it works. Until one rainy night when the young woman's lust overpowers her fears and she makes it to the dude's hut. They don't even wait to get inside to get it on. They do it right there in the rain amid the tall reeds. With the mother-in-law in the demon mask looking on.
That's when things get a little freaky.
The young widow gets back to find her mother-in-law crying in the hut with the demon mask on her face. She's crying because it got wet in the rain and it's now stuck on her. The girl, rightfully pissed off, uses a hammer to crack the mask in half and knock it off her face. But the woman, of course, is now just as scarred as the samurai who she killed. Even more so. She has literally turned into a monster.
There's a lot going on in this film. I'm not sure it works as straight horror. I don't think that was Shindo's intent at all actually. It's more of an art film, filled with symbolism. The scarring under the mask is supposed to evoke the memory of the radiation burns of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At one point, the young widow even asks of the older woman "The rain did this?" when she reveals the mask has been bonded to her face. A nod to the nuclear fallout nicknamed "black rain" by the survivors of the bombs? Maybe.
It's definitely a moody and atmospheric film. Shot in black and white, it is so sparse at times that it feels like it could have been a stage play. I'm not sure that the beat jazz score that popped up every once in a while fit, but hey...it was the groovy '60's, man!
All in all, I liked it. It's not very scary and I would be hard-pressed to call it a horror film. But it is an interesting study of the effects of war and class struggle on a society. Innocent farmers turning into killers and thieves in order to survive. War is hell, indeed.
___________________________________________________Note: Remember to play the Badgerdaddy Trivia Challenge every day. The title literally means "Demon Woman". Oh yeah.