Thoughts On: Onibaba (Devil Woman, 1964)
During war time, a mother and her daughter-in-law kill Samurai to stay alive by selling their equipment.
Onibaba is first and foremost a striking film with amazing cinematography and cinematic language that captures motion, expression and patterns with an incredibly strong and poetic prowess. Beneath this skin, however, is a dark and dizzying story about very little – at least, that is how it seems.
This narrative is centred on two women, a mother and a daughter-in-law, and is set in the mid-fourteenth century in rural Japan as a civil war rages around them. Without their son and husband, and with very little means of growing food and accumulating resources, the mother and daughter kill soldiers that wander into their fields – which are saturated with tall reeds. They steal what equipment they find on the soldiers, dump their bodies in a deep hole and sell the armour and weaponry for food. This keeps them alive in these harsh time, but, one day Hachi, their neighbour, returns from war (which he fled from disguised as a priest). He tells the mother that he saw her son (the daughter’s husband) killed by farmers that they tried to steal from, but, the mother doesn’t trust him, instead, believes that Hachi probably killed him. Nonetheless, the trio live alongside one another, eventually going on to share food, resources and even kill stray soldiers together. However, Hachi wants the daughter-in-law to marry him – and she soon falls for him. Not wanting to be made obsolete with no one to share resources or kill soldiers with, the mother tries in many ways to prevent their affair, eventually warning her daughter-in-law about demons from hell that will come for ‘bad’ people. The rest of the narrative is then a blend of deception, lies, sexuality and desperation that ends with the mother disfigured after a mask she uses (which she stole from a Samurai she killed) to scare her daughter gets stuck to her face. After tearing this mask off – breaking it with a hammer – the daughter-in-law flees in fear from her mother and her demonic resemblance, the final image being the pair jumping over the hole that they throw murdered soldiers down.
Whilst there are a few more details to this plot, what is clear is that this film is rife with what some may refer to as sin. There is murder, lies, disrespect, debauchery and so much more imbued into almost every moment of this narrative. With every character ending up dead or punished in some way, this seems to be a nihilistic film without much reason or a message embedded into it. (A detail from the ending that I didn’t mention is that the mother didn’t actually kill the Samurai, only lead him to fall down the hole – which left him seriously injured. He must have recovered and climbed out with the rope left behind. From here he must have took refuge in Hachi’s hut when he wasn’t present. When he returns, the Samurai kills him).
With so much desperation, evil, immorality and fatal punishment in this narrative it appears to wrap itself up in an air-tight bubble, which, as said, makes it seem nihilistic and rather pointless. However, when we consider the director, Kaneto Shindo, and his interests as a filmmaker, this film begins to open up. Shindo made many films that were in some way linked to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the end of WWII – and Onibaba is one of them. Shindo has said that the Samurai mask is not only a reference to a Buddhist parable that this movie is based on (one that is about fear, lies and punishment), but also a symbol of the disfigurement that the atomic bombs inflicted upon their victims.
Onibaba is then quite clearly an exploration of war’s effect on a society, moreover, it is seemingly an extension of the decades-long debate over the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This debate is seemingly one that can’t really be pinned down as it is based on so much speculation and emotion. Whilst the bombing lead to Japan’s surrender and so contributed to the end of the second World War, it of course ended around 130,000 innocent lives, impacting countless other thousands – if not millions. It cannot be accurately estimated, however, how many lives this bombing saved – both of the Japanese and their enemies who would continue their battles, possibly to the demise of their whole populations.
With so much to object to, yet so little to say about one of the most horrifying events in human history, to even begin to articulate anything about it is incredibly difficult. When we turn to Onibaba, however, there seems to be an opening of incite into this whole topic. In such, the crux of this film is its exploration of how war leads people down a winding path of immoral acts that can only be justified or deemed ‘sinful’ selfishly and relative to individuals’ own biases. And it’s this base of Onibaba’s narrative that gives it a post-modern aesthetic and tone; it focuses on the relativity of all acts. However, this film is not, at least in my view, entirely postmodern as it does provide reason, answers and boundaries of judgement.
Judgement and commentary are then provided by this narrative with its symbolic mask. Whilst it represents disfigurement with implications of physical damage, it also implies a psychological damage. This psychological damage is sourced from the act of war – in the context of this story, the Japanese Civil War of the 14th century. War is chaos and so it dismantles structures of morality. This is directly alluded to with the hunger and desperation of the mother and daughter; they did not decide for this war to happen, they never even choose a side (much like Hachi and their son/husband). This hunger dismantles their moral structuring and it leads them to murder for selfish reasons. However, can this selfishness be justified? They are starving, they will die if they do not kill. What choice are they left with? These are questions that chaos leaves a society; these are questions that destroy moral structures. Moreover, these are the questions that leave the mother dependent on the daughter-in-law as she can only kill with her help and will probably be abandoned if she leaves her. Again, societal structures are being dismantled; all foundations of community are being questioned to damaging consequences.
The only means through which individuals can bring order into this chaos is to define new structures around themselves. This is what leads to dehumanisation, lies, debauchery, destruction, murder and, arguably, an atomic bombing. When we then face this universal conundrum of chaos and its devastating effect on structure in society, there only seems to be one cure: order. Order is peace, community and responsibility; it is what ends war and allows societies to flourish in a sustainable manner. The implication of such an assertion is that to combat chaos, people can only come together in a transparent manner, understanding and supporting one another’s needs so that healthy streams of social and material exchange can function. However, if order is established with the tactics of chaos (those being lies, cheating and evil of various sorts), the system that is trying to be controlled is doomed to failure.
As symbolically represented by this narrative, chaos is established in the first act through the murders and a lack of community; the two women having to kill and sell stolen goods instead of working with the merchant they sell to (who is also a proponent of chaos as he only wants to sleep with the mother). Moreover, we see chaos through the meeting of the two women and Hachi – they never trust one another or help one another with a perspective of a greater ideal: survival as a unit. And an interesting caveat to this first act is the definition of these two women only as relatives to Kichi, the son and husband who dies and is never seen. It is with this that they are bound inextricably to war and chaos – which is what began the destruction of their individuality. All of this chaos is confronted throughout the second act, but is combated with the tactics of chaos by all; cheating, distrust, lies, murder, manipulation, etc. This leads to literal traps being set by all, which ultimately leaves them tainted, disfigured, dead or forever jumping over the pits that they dig for themselves and others – and such is the final image of this film.
Onibaba’s intricate commentary on both war and its effect on people is then based around the dissolution of structure as ignited by a significant act of chaos. Its critique is on those that dropped the atomic bomb, but also those at all levels of society that contributed to the World War’s beginnings as well as those that propagate the essence of those initial chaotic actions in the post-war era. Through Onibaba, Shindo ultimately echoes the most significant lesson that the destruction in the 20th century should have taught humanity: peaceful order, in every level of society, is what we should all strive for before anything else; a room of any size cannot be put to good use if all that resides within is destruction and disarray.
To end, I’ll turn to you. Have you seen Onibaba? What are your thoughts?
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