23 November 2011 | Red-Barracuda
Death comes from within the ocean of reeds
Onibaba is a supernatural horror film based on a Buddhist fable. It's about a couple of women in feudal Japan surviving the hardships of war by murdering and robbing stray samurais who wander unwittingly into their path. Their domain is a huge field of tall reeds with an ominous deep hole at its centre where they dispose of the unfortunate men they kill. Things are complicated when a male neighbour returns from the war and unleashes sexual tensions within the women which ends in horror. And that is to say nothing of the demon mask...
Onibaba is an artistically strong piece of cinema. From the outset the film is aurally intense, with repetitive beating drums announcing the beginning of the tale. The widescreen frame is consistently used brilliantly, with beautifully lit black and white photography. From the constantly swaying reeds to the close-ups of the protagonist's faces, the visuals capture the mysterious yet ominous beauty of the natural world, while emphasising the intense emotions of the protagonists. The setting ensures that the atmosphere is one of claustrophobia. In fact one of the themes of Onibaba is the way that the natural landscape can shape the way we are. The field of reeds allows the women to get close enough to kill warriors; it is one of the things that shapes them into killers, as it allows them to murder at will undetected. Similarly, the film is an allegory on capitalism. The war has forced these starving women to find their own way to survive the hardships all around them. They take extreme measures to feed the capitalist machine, as they murder and sell on that which they steal to a local low-life. Capitalism has dehumanised them and the black hole in the centre swallows up the victims. But aside from this, it is an intense human drama intertwined with eerie supernatural horror. The scenes near the end of the film with the demon in the reeds are beautifully creepy. While the horrific curse of the mask results in some scary and disorientating final scenes. In addition, there is a powerful depiction of female sexuality. These women are no shrinking violets. They are aggressive, amoral and deadly.
Onibaba is a film that is sumptuous both visually and aurally; yet its characters and story are devoid of beauty. It's one of the best examples of a horror art film.