ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Upton is an American (non-werewolf) writer/editor in London. She currently works as a freelance ghostwriter of personal memoirs and writes for several blogs on topics as diverse as film history, punk rock, women’s issues, and international politics. For links to her work, please visit https://www.jennuptonwriter.com or send her a Tweet @Jennxld
In Japanese, the word oni おにmeans demon andばばmeans old woman or hag. In this case, we are dealing specifically with a sexually repressed meddling mother-in-law. Onibaba is set in feudal Japan during the bloody civil war period that preceded the Tokugawa period. An unnamed old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) are forced to kill wandering warriors and sell their armor for food in order to survive while they wait for the man of the house to return. One day, neighbor Hachi (Kei Sato) returns to tell the old woman that her son is dead. The old woman is suspicious of whether or not Hachi killed her son but allows him to stay around because he is useful. Relatively quickly, Hachi and they newly-widowed young woman begin an affair. Needless to say, the old woman is not very happy about this and does everything in her power to keep them apart. She constantly talks of sin and watches her daughter-in-law like a hawk. Despite the old woman’s best efforts, the young woman still manages to sneak out and have hot, sweaty summer sex in the tall grass while the wind blows on the soundtrack.
One night a Samurai wearing a frightening bull mask visits the old woman and asks her to lead him through the fields to the nearest road. Seeing an opportunity, she kills the Samurai, takes his mask and proceeds to use it to scare her daughter-in-law by pretending to be a demon. For several nights, the young woman’s plans to meet her lover are thwarted, sending her back to her hut in tears. One night, Hachi finds her screaming in the rain and convinces her that demons do not exist. The two make love while voyeuristic mother in-law looks on, her own internal emotions symbolically flashing on the screen and soundtrack via lightning and thunder.
Nobuko Otowa as the old woman is a stand out. Her cat-like facial expressions, spying and manipulation might very well ring true to many viewers who have difficult mothers-in-law. Technically, this film is a fine achievement and is today taught in many film schools as a classic example of the post-war Japanese cinema era. The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous. The grasses of the fields blow ominously in the wind around the characters’ meager huts, conveying a desperation to the characters’ existence rarely seen in modern cinema. The heat of the Japanese summer almost radiates from the screen as the sweat glistens off of the women’s work-stained flesh. Disturbing screams of pain enhance the minimalist soundtrack adding to the uneasy feeling of the whole piece.
The film concludes in a none-too-happy, supernatural manner for everyone involved, especially the mother in-law. Onibaba was based on a famous Japanese legend/morality tale (which explains the lack of character names) and all humans are punished for their evil deeds. Onibaba is an enjoyable suspense-drama that is definitely worthy of a look.