You know when you're bored on the weekend and you don't know what movie to watch because the internet is a cesspool of bad direct-to-DVD movies? We've decided to bring back an old column called the VICE Movie Club to solve this problem. Each month, we'll choose a series of movies connected to a different theme—this month the theme is Japanese cinema—and Alexandre Stipanovich and some of our favorite contributors will give their two cents about the films.
To start the return of the column, Alexandre is talking about the classic film Onibaba.
If you've seen Onibaba and you didn't love it, you should watch it again. If you haven’t seen it yet, book yourself a lazy evening and discover the film's tough and indomitable women who kill men by day and sleep naked under the Japanese moon by night. Onibaba is a tale about how invoked demons will possess their invokers; it is a fiction about hate, who feeds it, and whom it consumes.
The film bridges several genres—horror, drama, and action—and although it was created by Japanese writer/director Kaneto Shindo in 1964, the themes are timeless.
It's 14th century Japan and two women are living in a hut by a swamp. They survive by ambushing warriors, killing them, and selling their belongings. Both women are united by the same man—the older one is his mother, the younger one is his wife—who has left for the civil war and most likely won’t come back. The missing son is the invisible link between them; they are accomplices, almost like sisters. They sleep in the same hut, in a silent harmony driven by necessity. They pull out their strength and determination by the conviction he will come back soon.
But as they learn of his death, they slowly lose hope, and the missing man holding in between them becomes the reason for their mutual hate, like a ghost that unlocks dark and manipulative intents. One of the son's comrades, who was also inducted by force into the army, returns instead, and the two women slowly start feeling an attraction to him. The older woman becomes jealous of her daughter-in-law, who reunites with her son’s comrade at night, so she dresses into a demon to terrify her. By doing so, she hopes to make her feel guilty and docile. If daytime is for appearances, nighttime is for passionate instincts to unfurl and suppressed forces to come to life.
One night, the demonic mask won’t come off the mother’s face. In a panic, the mother confesses her devilish plan and begs her daughter-in-law to help her remove the mask. When it finally comes off, it leaves the mother’s face mutilated.
Since Greek antiquity, drama has chosen the family as its favorite topic, and family is the greatest theater for all instincts to unfold. And in Onibaba, we come to understand how demonic masks only serve to conceal human passion and frustration. I’ve asked three friends to share their points of view on the film, which show how Onibaba remainsrelevant even 50 years later.
NICOLAS NIARCHOS – JOURNALIST
Something moves in the grass in Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba. Made in 1964, it was the first of Shindo’s films to depict sex, a topic he would return to again and again. And sex prevails in Onibaba, where a war in 14th century Japan has left two women without men living in a hut in the middle of vast fields of long susuki grass. To survive, they kill soldiers who stray into the grass and sell their armor for bags of millet to a hawker named Ushi who seems to be ripping them off.
Ushi’s lair provides a counterpoint to what they call “the Hole,” a pit hidden in the long grass where the two ladies (they are never named) drop most of the bodies. “Deep and dark,” we are told, “its darkness has lasted since ancient times.” The first shot of the film is a long tilt that starts with the wind moving in the fields and ends on the image of the Hole. To interpret it too symbolically (these women are literally killing men with their vaginas) would be overly simplistic, but the spirit of the Hole and its darkness certainly provides a counterpoint to sexual desire.
At the beginning, there is a sort of stability, albeit a desperate one, to the women’s existence, modulating between these two dark spaces. One is a pit of death and decomposition, the other a space of sensuous exploitation. (At one point Ushi has to clamber over a reclining nude who doesn’t seem to budge.) But it’s no Thelma and Louise. What moves in the grass is a dark longing, the spirit of the Onibaba (demon hag), which precludes intrahuman connection. When the women shout into the Hole, they hear the voice of the Onibaba echoing back, and it is their own.
Read in context, Onibaba is a reckoning with war and the forces that affect people on the periphery of war. The face of the Onibaba with her mask removed is remarkably similar to the burned visages of the Children of Hiroshima, the title of another of Shindo’s films made a decade earlier. So while Onibaba praises sex and carnality over the powers of destruction, it is also a lament for the inability of those who have been touched by the spirit of violence to return to desire. What moves with the wind in the grass is not sex or destruction—it’s a longing for a world without that violence.
JONATHAN LEDER – FILMMAKER, PHOTOGRAPHER (PROMISCUITIES)
The interesting thing about watching 50-year-old films is to see how they age. Perhaps, in the long-term view of film history—say, 200 years or more from now—people won’t be as concerned with how a film does at the box office, so much with how it ages and stays relevant to audiences over time.
Personally, this was one of the most compelling 50-year-old films I have ever seen. Spanning numerous film genres—period piece, historical drama, action movie—the film is an erotic masterpiece of human proportions.
Driven by greed and lust, the film is sparse, tense, and claustrophobic. The suffocating world of pampas grass closes in on the characters all the time. Shindo proves once again that in the hands of the right director, a beautifully shot, edited, and well-crafted film can be so much more compelling than scores of big-budget modern monstrosities.
FABIOLA ALONDRA – DIRECTOR AT FULTON RYDER
The first image is that of a female warrior sculpture holding a sword and shield, before giving way to a vast field of tall grass, lithely dancing to the wind’s heavy breathing. The field is powerful and its presence is the strongest character, creating a sense of entrapment and restlessness. Among the beautiful field lies darkness in the shape of a deep hole in the ground: “Its darkness has lasted since ancient times.” I appreciated the function of history in the film, from the mythological goddess sculpture at the beginning to the primordial field and the archaic darkness that lies within the mysterious orifice. The film overflows with symbolism, eroticism, superstition, and allegories.
The mood throughout reminded me of a melodramatic noir film with its black tones highlighted by sharp white spotlights. The way the light hits the women’s faces accentuates sweat and pores and reveals the humid and moist environment. The focus on their heavily lined eyes emits fierceness; the light hits them the way lightning strikes during a thunderstorm. They are the all Seeing Eye, the female eye.
The music in the film is essential, heavy on percussion and drumming, with every sound felt and heard with equality: the sound of the wind caressing the grass blades, the birds chanting their messages to the earth, the ravens on tree branches, the tedious dragging of heavy corpses as they brush against the lush earth, and the heavy breathing released while racing through the reeds at night time.
I also found Shindo’s approach to the idea of demons compelling. The demon mask conceals beauty and goodness in such a way that the mask transforms physically and also metaphorically. It leads to darkness and madness. The human becomes a demon, which is itself an allegory of war: “You become a demon, you stay that way.”