“Onibaba” is what would arise if the characters of “Ugetsu” broke a sweat. Directed by Kaneto Shindo, Mizoguchi’s former assistant, it is a feral fever dreamt in the the susuki fields of medieval Japan. Like Teshigahara’s similarly themed ‘Woman of the Dunes”, the film’s existence depends on its location. Two women eek out an existence cowering between the towering porcupine grass. The unseen world is aflame. Kyoto lies razed to the ground. Wandering ronin claim a horse has given birth to a calf and ash chokes out life itself. Who can say? We never see past the reeds. It’s a shame Jóhann Jóhannsson wasn’t composing yet. “The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Gone Black” suits the mood.
In a world unhinged, primal instincts assert control. Food and sex are king and queen. Though Shindo frequently deals in obvious symbolism, the film’s relentless energy propels it forward. Naked, masterless samurai rot in the dirt of a lightless pit. Sweat drenched bodies flail and convulse as they race through the reeds. A woman past her prime wails and clutches a barren, limbless tree. A frustrated man staggers to the edge of an unknowable pit and howls out for a woman’s touch. Fragile fabrics that would turn Damir Doma jealous, quiver against the wind. Bold ritual drums pound from afar. Leaves of grass ebb and flow like water. Sacks of millet are worth more than life itself. Every act becomes a calculated transaction.
Shindo casts Jitsuko Yoshimura, an obvious Aries, and the star of Imamura’s “Pigs & Battleships” as a young widow bound to her withered, kabuki-eyed mother in law. Her eyes and thighs soon lure her husband’s wartime comrade. In a life where every change of heart or shift in loyalty risks toppling the tenuous social order, a sudden masculine presence is a threat of the highest magnitude. As is true in cinema and life, in instances of love or lust, any sense of interference; whether it be manipulative meddling or well intentioned wisdom, only flames the fires. When you’ve made murder your primary means of survival, your plea for abstinence is bound to ring hollow. Late in the film, when Shindo reconfigures an old Buddhist tale to great effect, the maelstrom swirls and we see the true price of selfishness.
Informed by both the French new wave and the increasingly experimental post-war Japanese cinema, “Onibaba” stands as a great work of environmental terror. Told with few words and even fewer characters, it is the sort of film that almost stands outside of time. While clearly a product of its influences, its basic premise and underlying emotions could be translated to any moment throughout history. When I first saw it, I was taken in by its oppressive minimalism. Shindo presents an inescapable, almost one-dimensional world. This time out, I couldn’t get over the fact that despite the almost comically heated sexuality that lords over everyone, it still manages to create a multi-faceted character in the mother. The way she clutches for any straw within sight recalls the ache of Fasssbinder’s Petra Von Kant when she realizes that she, not her young companion risks being rendered obsolete. Clutch away, but don’t come crying when there’s nothing but the air between your fingers.
“Onibaba” is available in Chicago via DVD from Facets and Netflix and is instantly streamable through Netflix and Hulu Plus.