Girl Meets Context: Post-WWII Japan gave rise to a Golden Age of samurai films (called chanbara movies). These movies of the 1950s and 1960s were often cynical and psychologically complex, from Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy (1954-6) to Kurosawa’s masterpieces like Seven Samurai (1954) or Yojimbo (1961) to the genre’s crowning jewel, Masaki Kobayashi’s spell-binding Harakiri (1962). Director Kaneto Shindô merged the chanbara genre with the horror film on at least two occasions: the samurai-cum-kaidan (Japanese ghost tale) Kuroneko (1968) and 1964′s Onibaba, an erotic thriller set during the 14th-century Nanboku-chō period, a roughly thirty-year stretch when Japan was ravaged by civil war because of a Northern/Southern rift in the Imperial Court. Onibaba revolves around two nameless women, referred to in the script as only Middle-Aged Woman (Nobuko Otowa) and Young Woman (Jitsuko Yoshimura). The pair are former farmers struggling to survive. Middle-Aged Woman’s son (who was married to Young Woman) has been forced into military service and gone off to war, leaving them unprotected by a male in the household and, thus, vulnerable. But the women have begun to ambush and murder wounded soliders/samurai, strip them of their armor and weaponry (that they can then barter for food) and dump the bodies in a deep, dark hole in the middle of the marshland where they live. Suddenly, a local man named Hachi (Kei Sato) returns from war with news that Middle-Aged Woman’s son has been killed in combat. Hachi’s presence complicates the relationship between the two women, as he sets his sights on seducing Young Woman. The three of them are drawn into a primal power struggle that comes to a head when a mysterious masked samurai appears in the reeds one night. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the film’s tone, it’s leading lady, and the tension between the supernatural and the mundane. Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie and come back! It’s available on Hulu Plus if you’re a user of that service.
Sean: Hi there! Overall, what did you think of Onibaba?
Kristine: I was SHOCKED. It was NOTHING even close to what I was expecting and I was totally caught off guard. I thought it would be, like, forbidden love between a maiden and a samurai. Or like, kimonos and origami swans. I did NOT expect dog-eating and tree-humping and a corpse hole. This movie is SHOCKING!
Sean: Hahaha! A CORPSE HOLE. ORIGAMI SWANS. I am cracking up!
Kristine: That’s what it was! And what is wasn’t!
Sean: Did you think there would be delicate rice balls served with green tea?
Sean: No way, yo. This is some grimy shit!
Kristine: I thought there would be cherry blossoms… Not old ladies grabbing their vadges and saying, “I’m not old ON THE INSIDE!”
Kristine: That line… That whole failed seduction… I was DYING.
Sean: That line should totally be a t-shirt. They would sell it on Jezebel.
Kristine: Ha ha ha! Well, Jezebel or like, a kiosk on the Jersey Shore.
Sean: Oh no, you’re right!
Kristine: Heh. So, in this movie we have a society where being an old woman means you really ARE in mortal danger and ARE culturally obsolete… The fear of aging is REAL, not something that springs purely out of vanity.
Sean: Yes. Hell, I’d even say you are existentially obsolete. In a cosmic sense, you “don’t matter.” Which leads to this dynamic wherein the older generation of women sabotages and manipulates the Young.
Kristine: How much of Middle-Aged Woman’s actions were out of self-preservation or how much were out of jealousy?
Sean: Oh, its both. I think Middle-Aged Woman is one of the more psychologically complex and fascinating “heroines” we’ve had yet in any of the movies we’ve watched for the blog. When she offers herself to Hachi, it is so layered. I get the feeling that she is doing it for a very practical reason – to try to distract or redirect Hachi from Young Woman so that she won’t lose her. But I also think that Middle-Aged Woman projects a certain desire to just be with a man. I think that part of her does want the sex, even though she has these other, more practical reasons for propositioning Hachi.
Kristine: Right. Her tree-humping and booby-grabbing after seeing Young Woman and Hachi bone is proof of that. She is still a woman, and is still sexual, even though society doesn’t see her as such. I thought it was interesting that despite the fact the she was supposed to be this old crone, her body was in fact very youthful and hard to distinguish from Young Woman in the dark. So this perception that she is haggard and unattractive is just that: a perception. Though I will admit her face with THOSE EYEBROWS was a little frightful.
Sean: Hahahaha. Yes, the hygiene in this movie was a situation.
Kristine: My hand was reaching toward the screen, longing to pluck those brows.
Sean: Lady-brows in Japanese period films are always terrifying. But I also was really moved by Middle-Aged Woman’s interactions with the masked samurai. When he claims that the reason he wears the mask is because of his great beauty and she pleads with him to reveal his face to her, again I thought she was both doing that for pragmatic reasons (to weaken his position and reduce his sense of threat) and for genuine reasons (the idea of male beauty – and the stirrings of desire that brings with it – are actually appealing to her). But she also makes it about class. “I’ve never seen anything beautiful since the day I was born,” she tells him, in what feels like a manipulation steeped in truth. When she says, “I’ve never seen anyone so handsome, it could take my breath away” you feel like she is being honest, but also regretful. Part of her wishes she could be swept up in some wild passion (like Hachi and Young Woman). But a poor woman’s life has been too hard for such fanciful notions – and the masked samurai even says, “This face is not for peasants.”
Kristine: Yes, I agree with all that. I absolutely felt that she wanted to witness pure beauty for once in her… what does Hobbes call it? Her “ugly, brutish and short” life?
Sean: Don’t you mean her “brutal, puppy-eating” life?
Kristine: She is ALWAYS thinking of all the angles and her own self-preservation. She has to.
Sean: Oh, yes. She’s a total operator.
Kristine: It is hard to see her as a truly villainous character. She truly has no other options but to murder and manipulate. She has ZERO power in society, not even the power of her sexuality (as Young Woman has).
Sean: I think if Middle-Aged Woman is a “villain,” it’s because of the cosomology that she constructs for Young Woman’s benefit (of course, I don’t think Middle-Aged Woman believes her own story). She proposes the idea of Purgatory and a burning hell full of sinners in order to terrify and control Young Woman. I actually really loved Hachi at the moment when Young Woman asks him if they are sinning and he answers, “People have been doing this for thousands of years.” Then he adds, “But I’m willing to go to hell with you!” Hachi’s sex-positivity, and his rejection of a punitive cosmology of “virtue” and “sin,” made him a kind of hero for me. I thought the movie showed the Hachi/Young Woman sexual relationship as pleasurable (for both of them), warm, totally grounded and human. I think this is a humanist movie at the end of the day. I don’t feel like the movie is judging them as sinners. I feel like the movie wants us to laugh, along with Hachi, at that very idea.
Kristine: I agree. Hachi definitely evolved over the course of the movie for me. At first, when he was all ” I WANT A WOMAN!!,” I was icked out by him. But then, yeah, when you see Young Woman having orgasms and them being playful and loving, and him even promising Middle-Aged Woman that she wouldn’t be abandoned, he became much more likeable. That’s another thing – when Middle-Aged Woman and Hachi talk, he is actually trying to compromise and work with her, but she just cannot allow herself to believe or to trust him. She has been conditioned to always think that people are out to screw you, and her distrust of him ends up backfiring on her. It’s a sad moment.
Sean: Yes. I sort of love Hachi. I just want to state for the record how much I love the world that this movie creates. It carves out for itself this small but utterly distinct aesthetic universe – the weird and beautiful world of the reeds and the river, the small huts, and the pitch-dark nighttime spaces. It feels alien and familiar at once, and for me it is responsible for how the movie feels both mythic and timeless, despite the historical setting.
Kristine: Oh, I agree! The reeds were… intense. I love how the opening scenes are set to modern ‘60s jazz, but the music is being used to introduce us to this world of primordial reeds. The reeds were SUCH a thing in this movie! The way characters hide in them and get lost. I was totally creeped out by the all the crazy nighttime noises when Young Woman would run through the reeds to her Hachi’s hut. It IS really cool, and legitimately scary at times.
Sean: Oh yeah, the cacophony of all the insects and animals at night…
Kristine: I have a plot point question.
Sean: Yes, please.
Kristine: Who killed Hachi in his hut? Was it the masked samurai from the pit? Did he somehow manage to escape from the corpse hole? Or was it some completely other person? Maybe the son/husband? Or a total stranger?
Sean: I love that you picked up on that! Yeah, the director leaves his identity totally ambiguous and I think you’ve covered all the major possibilities. He’s either (a) the unmasked samurai, (b) Young Woman’s husband/Middle-Aged Woman’s son or (c) a random stranger trying to survive in this quasi-apocalyptic landscape.
Kristine: Okay, I am glad I wasn’t being a dumbbell and missing something. I think it was the son/husband!
Sean: I think there’s a VERY strong possibility that you’re right. Hachi’s expression could be either shocked recognition…
Kristine: Yay, me!
Sean: …Or it could be dumb surprise.
Sean: It’s impossible to tell 100%. If it’s NOT the son, I think it’s just some marauding, starving soldier. I think the least likely scenario is that it’s the samurai from the pit. Because it is a random soldier then it reinforces the desperate struggle for survival that all our major characters are caught up in, and there’s a certain karmic logic to Hachi’s death. “Live by the sword, die by the sword,” right?
Kristine: Certainly. In the world they live in, everyone is desperate. It could have easily been some rando. Can you tell me more about this director and his bio in general? I have zero familiarity.
Sean: The director’s name is Kaneto Shindô. He apprenticed with the great Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi (director of Ugetsu and Sanshô the Bailiff). He was drafted into the Navy during WWII. After Japan’s surrender he showed back up at Shôchiku Studios and found them totally deserted – he broke in and spent his days working on scripts until the studio reopened. Later, in the early ‘50s, he broke away from his job writing scripts at Shôchiku to direct. That’s when he met Nobuko Otowa – the actress who plays Middle-Aged Woman in Onibaba – and they became lovers (Shindô was married). She was a rising star in the studio system, but she threw away her career to star in Shindô’s first film and became his muse. She starred in almost all his movies. He broke into the international film scene with Children of Hiroshima, which starred Otowa as a young teacher who returns to Hiroshima to search for her former pupils after the atomic bombing.
Kristine: Oh, lord. I could not watch that.
Sean: Yeah. He went on to a long, distinguished career making movies with political subtexts. His wife eventually left him in the 1970s over his decades-long affair with Otowa. Otowa and Shindô married and were together until her death from liver cancer in 1994. He only died last year in 2012.
Kristine: So, do you read this film as political? That it’s about what happens to the underclass when society is in upheaval, and especially what happens to women?
Sean: Yeah, don’t you think? In fact, Shindô has said in interviews that the effects of the mask were meant to recall post-Hiroshima disfigurement. But he was also sort of experimental…. He made an entirely dialogue-free movie called The Naked Island, about a small family struggling to survive and entirely filmed on location on a little, uninhabited island off the coast of Hiroshima. Otowa and Shindô both had their ashes scattered there after their deaths. He made dozens of movies, but only two that could be considered “horror movies,” Onibaba and Kuroneko, which also stars Otowa paired up with a different young actress. In that movie, the two women are raped and murdered by wandering samurai and come back from the grave as cat-demon-ghosts. Otowa totally brings it in both movies.
Kristine: She is… a force. Do you agree with what I said about the bodies of the women? Didn’t you think they were interchangeable in the dark?
Sean: Yes! Also, yes, Otowa is a TOTAL fucking force. Totally fearless.
Kristine: SO what makes one desirable and one not?
Sean: Um, I think they’re both desirable. Just one is fighting the social prejudice of being stigmatized by age…. Right?
Kristine: Right… But maybe also there’s something to what I was saying about how her lifetime of having to fight for everything has made her hard and suspicious. She views everything as a transaction, including sex with Hachi. Even though she genuinely desires it, she would never “give it away.” It has to be to get something in return. Hachi desires Young Woman both because she is who he is “supposed” to desire (he is conventional in that regard) but also because she isn’t hardened in that way yet. She is still joyful and giving and desires sex just because it feels good.
Sean: Yes! Amazing point. I want to talk about… the hole. You already know what I’m going to say, right?
Kristine: Yeah yeah yeah. Corpse hole = vagina.
Sean: I think this movie is about the feminine and about womanhood in more ways than one. Obviously, I see the dark hole as a uterine, female space – the movie is divided on how it feels about the feminine. Remember that the subtitles at the beginning of the film read, “The hole… Deep and dark… Its darkness has lasted since ancient times.” To me this is an indication that the film is going to delve into some kind of mythic exploration of “woman” as subject and, of course, as problem. Hachi yells into the hole soon after he returns from war, positioning himself both as an aggressor (and possible rapist, though he becomes a seducer instead – thank God) and a willfull, obstinate child in the face of the maternal or feminine.
Kristine: I agree with all that. And remember Hachi puzzling over the hole, curious, but not brave enough to actually explore it? Like he knows it’s beyond his realm.
Sean: Right. But those first images of Middle-Aged Woman and Young Woman dragging the stripped bodies of the murdered samurai into the hole are a wonderfully perverse reversal of birthing imagery. The male bodies are naked except for those white undergarments that, to me, evoke an infant’s diaper. And the women drop the bodies INTO the hole, in a kind of rebellion against the notion of the birth canal. I think this imagery could be read two ways – that it marks the women in a negative sense, because it shows them as “perverse” and against “nature,” dealing death instead of life, cramming the womb with corpses, turning the “female body” of the earth into a tomb and annihilating any association with fertility (remember, before the war these women were farmers).
Kristine: I did pick up on the fact that the women were farmers until the war and the crops failing, which has turned them into these vultures of death. It’s fucking terrible! Sean, I would kill myself in that world.
Kristine: I would!
Sean: But I also think the women throwing those dead bodies into the hole at the beginning could mark the women as rebels in a positive sense – that they are radicals, refusing conscripted gender norms and mocking the idea of women as “life-givers.” In this time of war, they don’t allow themselves to be “weakened” by conforming to nurturing or maternal archetypes. Remember that when Ushi, the old man at the trading post, offers to give them extra millet if Middle-Aged Woman sleeps with him, she refuses. She is determined to survive on grit and toughness, not by relying on “feminine wiles” or commodifying her sexuality. Of course, when Hachi shows up, all of this gets complicated, but the director is careful to show us how Ushi treats Hachi as opposed to how he treated the two women – he is respectful and generous with Hachi, stingy and imperious with the women. I think the director is very careful to point out Ushi’s sexism, and the discrimination with which the women are treated. Obviously, they also are never given names (and thus, real identities) while the men in the film are.
Kristine: I did notice that. Again, remember Hachi yelling (to the sky? to the Gods?) “I want a woman!” Not, “I want THAT woman.” Just “A” woman.
Sean: Hahah! I kind of adore Hachi.
Kristine: You love him.
Sean: I do sort of. He is pro-sex, but he is still compassionate and fair with the women.
Kristine: You love that he is a horny dog. Oh my god, “dog.”
Sean: I had TOTALLY FORGOTTEN that they murder a puppy in this movie.
Kristine: That scene shocked me. SHOCKED! That poor little bugaboo.
Sean: I was very, very not into it.
Kristine: Ugh, me neither.
Sean: But when you’re starving… This movie does NOT romanticize shit.
Kristine: No, sir, it does not. The eating scenes were very… real.
Sean: OMG at the beginning after the first murder they like, STALK into the hut and cram handfuls of sticky rice into their mouth-holes. It was like watching you encounter a basket of potatoes. A feral, primordial scene of feeding.
Kristine: SHUT IT!
Sean: Do you secretly worship ancient, Polish potato demons? Do you pour out Satanic symbols on your bedroom floor with Betty Crocker instant Potato Buds?
Kristine: Of course. Mixed with the blood I’ve drained from alley pups.
Sean: I knew it.
Kristine: What is this movie saying about mythology and demons and all that? Is it radical in how it is saying those things are destructive for society? Or is it actually affirming the existence of “demons”?
Sean: No! I think it is the former, it is ANTI-superstition. That when you believe or perpetuate those ideas, you become the demon. You turn yourself into this thing you used as a rod to browbeat others with.
Kristine: YES! That’s what I meant.
Sean: Was the appearance of the masked samurai scary?
Kristine: Umm, no! That mask was ridic.
Sean: It was kind of a Jason Voorhees moment. In fact, that opening sequence where the two wounded samurais are lost in the field of weeds and then two long spears burst out of the reeds to impale them – that is how a million slasher movies start off, where two identity-less victims are quickly dispatched by the killer. But here, instead of some masked lone male as the antagonist, we get these two scrappy, malnourished women farmers. I think the mask is totally badass!
Kristine: Hmmm… What typical faggotry.
Sean: What did you make of the samurai character?
Kristine: I was… not as affected by him as I wanted to be? I mean, I get his function and all – the way he is imperious even when HE is the one who needs something. I kind of love that, even though he has ALL the power in this society, the war has created a situation when he is utterly at Middle-Aged Woman’s mercy, and he doesn’t even realize it until it’s too late and he is in… THE CORPSE HOLE!
Sean: Do you want your own corpse hole?
Kristine: YES, and it would be brimming over with ones who have displeased me. I would check them off my ENEMY LIST one by one and cackle and howl at the moon!
Sean: Who would you toss down there?
Kristine: Like, 50 people from work. A million politicians.
Sean: I love this image of you as a deranged werewoman.
Kristine: I thought that all ready WAS your image of me.
Sean: Would Gwyneth go in the corpse hole?
Kristine: No, she isn’t worth my time. I want to hunt my victims down in the reeds…
Sean: I actually would like to do an experiment with you – I think we should both sign up for Goop for like, 2 months, just as an experience, and dish about EVERYTHING in it.
Kristine: Ha ha, okay!
Sean: So I get the feeling you didn’t like this movie.
Kristine: Not so. I can’t say I am excited to see it again, but I thought it was brave and moving and genuinely shocking. Which is a lot. What about you?
Sean: I love it. I think it is actually like, in my Top 10 of all time.
Sean: I know. Can you believe?
Kristine: I can’t! That is amazing!
Sean: It is right UP my alley.
Kristine: Please tell me why. I know you said the atmosphere, and I agree with that 1,000%.
Sean: Yes, part of it is just how the movie is stunningly beautiful to look at.
Kristine: I think this is one of the most claustrophobic, atmospheric films I have ever seen.
Sean: That shot of Middle-Aged Woman returning to the hut at night and the crescent moon is hanging so low right over her head – it is like, surreal and naturalistic and impressionistic all at once.
Kristine: Weird that it can feel so claustrophobic and confining when it is all outdoors, but the reeds and the heat are palpable… I felt trapped in their world with them and it kind of sucked.
Sean: Yes! Oh I liked being in that world. It was bewildering and scary and dreamlike and lovely all at once. So the atmo is one reason I love it.
Kristine: Why else?
Sean: It is just so powerfully acted. Nobuko Otowa as Middle-Aged Woman and Kei Sato as Hachi really fucking DELIVER. And I really dig the ideas/attitudes present in the movie… To recap: Ultimately, I think this movie is about mothers and daughters, about a certain kind of “poisonous,” overbearing mother figure who does not want to let her daughter grow up and become a woman. Who wants to stigmatize her daughter’s sexuality, shame her about her body, and control her with superstitions about “demons” and purgatories and hells. The movie seems to me to be explicitly rejecting all that. This is a youth movement kind of movie, one that’s forward-looking rather than backwards-looking, and one that’s pro-sex, pro-independence and pro-grit. But it’s also an elegy of sorts for older women in society, right?
Kristine: Yes, yes, yes.
Sean: It’s deeply humanistic, anti-religious and totally compassionate but also pessimistic. It is basically my personality, as a movie.
Kristine: Ha!!!! I love it, and I am a little afraid.
Sean: I will EAT YOUR PUPPY, BETCH.
Kristine: I agree about the mother/daughter dynamic. It is totes Carrie, Sean!
Sean: Oh right! Mrs. White! She so cray-cray.
Kristine: When you said “poisonous, overbearing mother figure who does not want to let her daughter grow up and become a woman” I was like… Carrie!
Sean: Yes! Though this movie is “about” Middle-Aged Woman, not Young Woman, which actually feels more radical to me. I mean, Carrie is a repressive, conservative fantasy anyway. Carrie to America: “Bitches be crazy with their bloody vaginas and whatnot.”
Kristine: I agree, and I love that it focuses more on Middle-Aged Woman and her motivations and desires. It’s the more difficult story to tell. One of the most significant lines in the movie, I think, is when Hachi says to Middle-Aged Woman, “Of course [Young Woman] wants a man (a.k.a. sex). It is NATURAL for her to,” with the unsaid implication that it is UNNATURAL for Middle-Aged Woman to want that. That line hurt my heart.
Sean: Aw. Right, I get that. I get the implied rejection… But I kind of also feel like Hachi is right, at least, in that she shouldn’t be shaming Young Woman away from these desires…
Kristine: Sure, but he isn’t even thinking that Middle-Aged Woman would have those same desires. He is progressive about sex, but not THAT progressive.
Sean: True. But I really dug how Shindo filmed the sex in this movie. It was grimy, but it was kind of hot.
Kristine: I agree about the sex, and the frankness surprised me and then made me happy. I loved how she would RUN through the reeds to meet Hachi, both because she was terrified (remember she tells him the reeds scare her) and because she was super horny. Fear + sex = hot. I think you have a crush on Hachi! You give him a lot of credit.
Kristine: I am learning things about you!
Sean: I am a deep HOLE filled with SKELETONS.
Kristine: I agree that you have a deep hole with shameful secrets.
Sean: I only have one final question….
Sean: I am still trying to get a bead on the movie’s attitude towards war and the military. The “soldiers” in the movie are depicted as almost pathetic – especially the two who battle each other in the river and then, wounded, try to flee but are beaten and stabbed to death by our main characters. I thought that scene was totally sad and ridiculous. I laughed and also felt melancholy.
Kristine: I think the movie is definitely making a point about the absurdity and futility of war. Remember Hachi says something about how no one even knows why they are fighting?
Kristine: And the masked samurai’s men abandon him? There is no ‘good fight’ here, or even a real common goal. It’s just like, the gods playing chess or something. Or, as some character says, the war is a business.
Sean: I guess this is one of the things that impresses me so much about this movie. It is so tight and compressed, about just a few characters, and yet it manages to comment on Big Ideas without it feeling preachy or ham-fisted. It’s dense as fuck but its really just a chamber drama.
Kristine: I agree with you. It is impressive. You are convincing me that this is a pretty masterful film, Sean.
Sean: If there was a nuclear war, could you live in a hut with your boyfriend’s mother and waylay wanderers and eat murdered puppies?
Kristine: No. I shocked my boyfriend and the couple we had dinner with last weekend because the woman was telling a story about how her grandpa cut off his own leg with like a tractor or something, then drug himself five miles for help. And everyone was like, “Well, that’s what you do when you have no other options.” And I was like, “Umm, lying down in the field and gently moaning and then bleeding to death would be my option!” And they didn’t like that.
Sean: Hahahah! Your version of 127 Hours would be… 3 Minutes and 12 Seconds.
Sean: Okay, my rating is obvs Masterpiece! You?
Kristine: My rating is: Bloody wonderful gender exploration and critique AND A worthy film but won’t keep me up at night… except for the puppy scene.
The Girl’s Rating: Bloody wonderful gender exploration and critique AND A worthy film but won’t keep me up at night… except for the puppy scene.
The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!