31 Days of Hell: Onibaba

Andrew reviews the 1964 J-horror masterpiece, Onibaba.

Throughout William Friedkin's adaptation of The Exorcist, a subliminal strobe flash of a white faced demon with black teeth and cycles beneath its eyes (played by Eileen Dietz) appears in the blink of an eye.  It's a startling image forever burned into the eyes of all who see it.  And yet, little do viewers familiar with The Exorcist know that in fact this striking vista wasn't entirely devised by Friedkin and makeup artist Dick Smith on their own.  Rather, the ghoulish face was heavily inspired by one of the most terrifying and infamous examples of Japanese horror, Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba.

I think I just stepped in feces!

The story of two downtrodden women in the Tokugawa period of Civil War who murder drifters unlucky enough to encounter them and steal their belongings before disposing of their bodies in a bottomless pit, Onibaba begins as a film noir period drama before gradually evolving into a full blooded gothic horror tale.  Made in 1964, Onibaba is among the earliest entries into what would become known as the graphic J-horror subgenre full of nudity, violence and gore.  Loosely based on the Shin Buddist parable of the 'bride-scaring mask' about an evil woman who uses a mask to frighten her daughter only to find out it won't come off without tearing her face off with it, Onibaba is simultaneously a supernatural thriller of sorts, a fable and finally a loose allegory for the disfigurement of victims of the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Shot in black-and-white Tohoscope widescreen, this is a profoundly visually striking masterpiece which plays ominously with light and shadow.  Exploiting the remote location to the fullest, the film and its characters inhabiting it are trapped literally and figuratively in an open Hell surrounded by grass, water and muck from all sides.  Key to the eerie displacement purported upon the viewer is that the film never leaves this locale and provides an odd sense of claustrophobia and desolation.  Then there's the infamous white faced demon mask seen on the poster, evoking elements of the Noh theater much in the same expressionistic manner Akira Kurosawa did with his reimagining of Shakespeare's Macbeth with Throne of Blood.  There's a symbolic abstraction to the mask and a pure sense of dread about it, as though there's something inherently evil about it before and after it's worn by its unsuspecting victim. 

Informing the work of Seijun Suzuki, Kinji Fukusaku and even Takashi Miike, there's a loose eroticism running through the film with images of naked bodies glistening in the light against the darkness, suggesting Japanese cinema was even further ahead of the curve than the West.  Between Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes and Suzuki's Branded to Kill, Japanese cinema presented a fearlessness of sexuality in the movies which would not be heard in the United States until the early 1970s.  Finally, there's that pit where bodies seem to disappear off into infinity never to be seen again, paving the way for Nagisa Oshima's own spiritual horror epic Empire of Passion.

I hate your face!
At a time when Western horror was dominating the multiplexes around the world over with greater reliance on jump scares and confronting the "monster" headlong, Onibaba announced Asian horror as a slow and provocative burn towards an unfathomable shriek.  More than just a cheap thrill designed to make people scream and shout, Asian horror presented the gradual buildup of unease saturating the viewer with tension and unfocused fear.  The score also managed to set Asian horror apart from the pack with its unique mixture of jazz, Taiko drums and heavy winds, in a way predating the work of David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti.  Asian horror like Onibaba arguably introduced gore, violence and sex into the genre at a time when Western censors would have gone crazy over such searing transgressions.  Simple in premise yet epic in scope, direct in plot yet elusive in meaning, Onibaba is above all a visceral scare fest which proved to the world the only people at that time making real horror movies were unquestionably the Japanese.


-Andrew Kotwicki

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