Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Ghosts in the Tall Grass :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Kaneto Shindô's Onibaba (1964)

As the Battle of Minatogawa rages nearby, which triggered a long and bloody period of civil war and strife in 14th century feudal Japan that would last for over fifty years, two soldiers flee from the wholesale carnage but are pursued by several others on horseback. Now, whether these men are fleeing from the enemy or are deserters no one can say for sure as they try to lose themselves in a dense patch of grass. And as they struggle through the deepening marsh and overwhelmingly dense vegetation, as the wind whips the elongated chutes into a blinding frenzy, both men are suddenly run through by spears held by unseen hands, gored, and killed rather gruesomely.

It is then revealed those spears were held by two women, who quickly strip the victims bare of their weapons, armaments, and clothing before unceremoniously dragging and dumping the bodies into a large and ominous pit secluded deep in the marsh. All of this is done with such a ruthless efficiency, it becomes quite obvious these two have pulled off this kind of ambush before. And not only have they done this before, but they’ve turned it into a cottage industry as these desperate and destitute women leave their ramshackle hut and take this latest batch of loot to a black market peddlar named Ushi (Tonoyama) and trades them for more rations of rice.

Seems times are tough in this province, what with the feuding factions having stripped the land bare of anything edible and shanghaiing all able-bodied men into service (-- and women, too, for other reasons), leaving no one to regrow the next batch of crops, leaving those left behind to eke out an existence by any means necessary or face death by starvation. And since it’s rare to have a dog wonder into camp and onto the menu, the old woman (Otowa) and the girl, her daughter-in-law (Yoshimura), decided to get proactive. In fairness, they haven’t chosen a side in this conflict and are equal opportunity killers and looters. And once the latest negotiations are complete, the lecherous Ushi offers up an extra ration if either woman will have sex with him. The older woman refuses. Bluntly.

When they return to the hut, the women are startled to find someone there, hiding out, waiting for them. Hachi (Satō) is another deserter, but he was also a neighbor and friend of Kichi, son and husband to these two scavengers, who got conscripted into the conflict at the same time, explaining why he wasn’t immediately set upon or wound up in the pit -- at least not yet, as Hachi brings bad news, revealing Kichi also tried to desert with him from the ongoing battle but was killed while trying to steal supplies from a group of farmers on the way home. Convinced the cowardly Hachi let her son die, the woman tosses him out and forbids the girl from ever interacting with him.

But things tend to get mighty lonely in the tall grass and, soon enough, Hachi is able to not-so-clandestinely seduce the girl and they go at it, hot and heavy, night after night. Soon realizing she is about to lose the girl to this interloper, and knowing full well she will never survive on her own without her partner, the woman, perhaps a little jealous, and definitely equally sexually frustrated, confronts Hachi, pleads with him to leave the girl alone, and offers herself up instead to satisfy his carnal needs only to be laughed off as an old hag he wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. Thus, despite the fact Hachi was awful handy in killing two dueling samurai caught in the flooded paddy, whose superior weapons brought them more rice, the old woman concludes he needs to go in the hole with all the others.

But before she can set this in motion, while the other two are once more off fornicating, making her distracted and off her game, yet another samurai -- a general (Uno), clad in a hideous demon mask, stumbles upon the hut unmolested. Seems the general, who refuses to remove the mask, saying it protects his beautiful face, has gotten lost after the latest battle and wants the woman to guide him out of this infernal marsh. And after a brief philosophical debate on Japan’s patriarchal caste system, the woman agrees to these demands only to the lead the man into a trap, when he is herded toward the unseen pit and falls to his death.

Then, when the woman lowers herself into the hole, she finally manages to wrest the stubborn mask off, which reveals the man was hideously scarred underneath. And as she strips the rest of him and makes fun of his looks, the woman suddenly hits upon a blasphemous notion that will solve all of her problems and explains why the samurai’s robes and demon mask were noticeably absent when she sells the rest off to Ushi. And while this does solve one problem for the old woman, it curses her with yet another, more deadly one...

An erotically charged, strange, but deceptively simple little bugaboo of a movie, Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) was based on an old Shin Buddhist parable, Yome-odoshi-no men (-- translated as bride-scaring mask), whose moral lesson of piety and divine consequences the director kinda acknowledged but then turned on its ear. In the story, a mother feels her daughter-in-law spends too much time going to temple and praying to Buddha, feeling her day would be better spent on her chores and tending to her husband’s needs. And so, to rectify this, the mother waits in ambush on the path to the temple, hiding in a patch of tall grass. And when the daughter-in-law approaches, she jumps out in front of her, wearing a hideous demon mask, shrieking and gesticulating, scaring the girl into an immediate u-turn.

But this stunt backfires when the wrathful Buddha puts a curse on her for this deception, which left the mask permanently welded to her face once it gets wet in a rainstorm. And only after she prays for mercy did the mask finally come off, but it took half of her face with it as a reminder that while Buddha can be merciful and forgiving, there will still be consequences to deal with for your blasphemy.

Shindo would later recount how his mother told him this story in his youth to reinforce the notion to always be honest and forthcoming and the dangers of hypocrisy and deception, and it apparently stuck. And while the central theme is still there and drives the third act, both Shindo and Onibaba had a lot more to say. Not since Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1993) have I seen a film hold this much contempt for those who wage war, which is then reflected in how the film wallows in the desperation, degradation, and poverty of those caught up in this no man’s land as they try to survive not day to day nor hour to hour but minute to minute.

From the opening scene of Onibaba -- which literally translates as “demon hag,” the cynical Shindo makes it perfectly clear he has no patience for the current corrupt social order of his native country, which led Japan to war two decades earlier, and strips bare the samurai’s bushido code by having his protagonists literally desecrate and strip every samurai carcass they come across. (This is all reinforced later in the scenes with the general both mortem and postmortem.) It is the stuff of nonsense, says Shindo, that only leads to loss and ruin for those caught in the wash, who suffer the real consequences of this kind of blind faith, leaving you with few choices: a terrible death by violence, or a horrible death by starvation.

But it’s not just food they’re all hungry for. There’s a very strong libidinous component to Onibaba as well. This is a lusty, sweaty, and primal movie. And if one looked at the evolutionary chart of such things, the film feels like a common genre ancestor for both the Pinky Violence and Roman Porno films that were about to come into vogue in the late 1960s. 

Unlike everyone else in this movie, the old woman is sexually frustrated. She’s extremely jealous when Hachi rejects her. And there’s even a few less than subtle hints of sapphic desire for her daughter-in-law, making things even more twisted as she waits in ambush as the girl once more sneaks out of the hut for another moonlight rendezvous with Hachi.

With Operation: Scare the Piss Out of Little Miss Horny Pants a complete success, the following morning, the old woman presses things even further, convincing the naive girl the demon was most assuredly real and divine punishment for her infidelity. And it will be back if she tries it again, she warns. These scare tactics work for a little while, but lust is a harsh mistress never satisfied. And so, as a thunderstorm rages, the old woman dresses up again and sets another ambush, which totally backfires this time. Seems Hachi was tired of waiting for the girl, sets out to find her, only to have the "demon" chase her right into his arms. And as he quiets her down and they go at it, the old woman, realizing she has failed and lost the girl for good this time, watches on dejectedly.

Once the deed is done, Hachi returns to his hut, where he catches another deserter stealing his food and is promptly killed by his startled guest. Meantime, the old woman has discovered she can no longer remove the soggy demon mask. When the younger girl returns, and is rightfully frightened by the sight of the demon in their hut, the old woman reveals it was her all along, begs forgiveness, and promises to no longer interfere in her love-life with Hachi if she will help get the infernal mask off. A mighty struggle ensues and, in the end, the girl winds up having to break the mask off with a hammer. Once gleefully removed, it’s revealed the mask took most of the woman’s skin with it.

Taking one look at this hideous visage convinces the girl this really was a demon all along; she screams, and then flees into the night. The old woman chases after her, swearing she is not a demon. This erratic chase leads them to the pit, which the girl jumps over. Right behind her, the older woman also makes the leap as the film abruptly ends, leaving it up to the audience on whether she made it across or not. Me? I’m leaning toward not, but it all kinda depends on your own metered severity of the ‘hell of your own making’ in what you just watched.

To fulfill his vision, Shindo wanted to make the entire film in a dense field of susuki grass; an invasive perennial that ranges from three to seven feet tall. And after a lot of searching, he finally found what he was looking for along a riverbank in Chiba near Inba-Numa, where they put up prefabricated buildings to house the minimal cast and crew for the scheduled three month shoot. The crew got a little mutinous as things dragged on due to the incessant rains and flooding that plagued the shoot, which bred hordes of insects and stirred up the local crayfish population; but stuck it out when told they wouldn’t get paid at all unless the contractual obligation was met.

Despite these hardships, Shindo, his cast, and his cinematographer, Kiyomi Kuroda, really captured some magic here. A film with more visual texture than Onibaba I’m hard pressed to name. Poetic even, when you add in the haunting vocals of Hayahi Hikaru’s intense, percussion heavy score. And I think the film works better if you take it at face value with the visuals, which -- from the opening sequence to the finale, where the old woman's scarred face brings to mind the radiation burns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are stunning, since the plot is kinda leaking water; and the less you try to ponder on the schism of an old folktale on right and wrong and a twisted carnal yarn of gaslighting and survival the better in the long run.

Onibaba (1964) Kindai Eiga Kyokai :: Tokyo Eiga Co Ltd. :: Toho :: P: Hisao Itoya, Kazuo Kuwahara, Tamotsu Minato, Setsuo Noto / D: Kaneto Shindô / W: Kaneto Shindô / C: Kiyomi Kuroda / E: Toshio Enoki / M: Hikaru Hayashi / S: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satô, Jûkichi Uno, Taiji Tonoyama

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