A Japanese fairy tale for grownups
Once upon a time there were two women who lived in a swamp. There was a war going on and times were hard for everyone, but they had found themselves a good source of income. Whenever a samurai came walking into their territory, they preyed on him in the high grass and killed him. After ridding him of his gear, which could be swapped for food, they rid of his body tossing it into a deep hole in the ground.
And so their lives went on until one day a new element entered their lives, something that disturbed the balance and eventually became a threat to their lifestyle. Another man came by, but not an unknown samurai this time, but someone they knew. It was the friend of the man they’d both been waiting for to return – the son of the older woman and the fiancé of the younger. But the friend bad news: the man they were waiting for was dead. However he had a suggestion: he was a young and healthy man and available on the spot, so what if the younger one took him instead? After all she needed a mating partner.
It didn’t take many days before the young woman went for the idea. She’d spent far too long time in that swamp without getting any sex, so she could as well grab the chance now that she got it. From that day she started to sneak away at nights to get some physical pleasure. But the older woman soon found out, and was very much displeased, fearing that she’d end up deserted, unable to go on killing for survival on her own. So she decided that she had to do something to put that idea out of the head of the young woman…
Open for interpretations
You’ll have to watch Onibaba for yourself to get the continuation, but I wanted to tell the story so far to give you a picture of what kind of movie this is. It’s a fairy tale for grownups with some sex elements in it (both women spend most of the time walking around topless) as well as a little bit of horror that honestly didn’t feel very frightening to me. I’ve probably watched too many demons getting slain by Buffy to take them seriously.
Cleared from all details and expectations to be believable, it’s a story that is open for interpretations. I’ve seen examples where people have read into it that the hole is an allegory of the capitalistic society. Others think it’s the female sexuality. Or that in fact it’s about the victims of the bombings of Hiroshima.
But I’m pretty dumb and simpleminded and couldn’t embrace all those possible allegories, which maybe could have added some kind of meaning to it. All I saw was what in the picture two bare-breasted women in a swamp, fighting for their survival and going through some sex drama. While it was interesting as a different species of a movie, so foreign and different to the kind of movies I usually watch, I had a hard time to relate to them or become engaged in the story. I felt as if I was studying a pinned up butterfly at a natural science museum.
Shots of reed grass
Mind you it was a beautiful butterfly. Especially I loved the setting. I never grew tired of watching the long shots of the reed grass, which seemed to be a living creature in itself, moving gracefully, sometimes menacing as the wind swept through it, full of dark secrets such as women who killed for a living. It looked pretty and somehow clean.
For a brief moment I thought to myself that IKEA totally should take a screenshot from Onibaba. I can imagine the grass field as one of their mass-produced framed photos, suitable for a stylish living room for a young, urban couple.
Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, JP, 1964) My rating: 3,5/5