Onibaba is another Asian film about staring into the abyss, literally in the case of two women living in a hut next to a pit.
This Japanese classic hops across genres as though vaulting over a hole. It goes from survival to erotica to horror, all the while keeping you as in the dark as its characters. Kaneto Shindo’s use of masks and towering reeds keeps the protagonists from seeing what’s in front of their faces, their only contact with the outside world being any soldiers unfortunate enough to cross their path.
Set in the 14th century but reflecting the changing attitudes of 1964, Onibaba depicts an intergenerational struggle between sexual liberation and religious control. The mother-in-law (Nobuko Otowa) uses the threat of hell to control her young companion (Jitsuko Yoshimura) as in a microcosm of religious dogma, and it’s no spoiler to say it doesn’t turn out so well for her.
The picture revolves around three characters (four if you include the thick vegetation that dominates the screen time) driven mad by lust, almost like a dystopian sci-fi flick about a sexual plague. It offers a bleak look at war from the outside in and a tough female perspective unique to J-horror, the air thick with sexual symbolism, death and saké.
Brilliantly and brutally shot in black and white, Onibaba also boasts a warlike percussive soundtrack and the scariest mask in cinematic history. Its heavy atmosphere and deep subtext of post-war nuclear fear and bestial human nature makes the movie daring and disturbing, and leaves the audience dazzled and dumbstruck. A Hole-y Grail of J-horror.