In an open field of a remote village in ancient Japan, two disoriented, exhausted soldiers attempt to evade the pursuit of relentless horsemen from a rival samurai clan, collapsing amidst the tall, overgrown reeds of the prairie. After the threat of capture has seemingly subsided, the pair attempt to continue on their desperate flight, but are unexpectedly ambushed and fatally speared. The vicious, unseen assailants then emerge from the brush – an old peasant woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) – examining the victims to ensure death before removing their armor, then coldly disposing of their corpses into an ominous, deep opening in the ground known as “The Hole”. The women then pack their spoils into two wicker baskets and set off to see the opportunistic merchant, Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama) in order to barter for sacks of millet. One evening, a mercenary named Hachi (Kei Sato) returns to the village after deserting his legion and witnessing the death of his samurai overlord. Arriving at the old woman’s hut, the boorish Hachi presumptuously demands food, knowing that she is eager to hear any news of her son, Kichi, and will not turn him away. Hachi immediately insinuates himself into the lives of the two women by becoming an accomplice in their barbaric enterprise, an unholy alliance that is soon threatened when Hachi attempts to seduce the lonely, repressed daughter-in-law.
Kaneto Shindo presents a harrowing and provocative examination of godlessness, amorality, and barbarism in Onibaba. Using spare, pantheistic landscapes, high contrast, chiaroscuro imagery, unnerving, environmental sounds, and frenetic tribal rhythms (composed by Hikari Hayashi) that evoke a sense of primitivism, Shindo illustrates the manifestation of the corruption of the human soul as a perversion of natural order: the ominous presence of “The Hole” that reflects the literal and figurative gateway to the underworld; the old woman’s recounted story of crop frost in the summer that is further validated by Hachi’s anecdote of the rising of a black sun in Kyoto; the echoed sounds of birds in flight as the daughter-in-law rushes through the ubiquitous, lacerating reeds in order to rendezvous with Hachi. An allegory for the underlying hypocrisy and absence of civilized behavior in the conduct of war, Onibaba exposes the man’s innate propensity towards violence, narcissism, and inhumanity in the absence of moral and spiritual direction. In the end, the old woman’s incessant, reaffirming pleas to the empty, forbidding darkness becomes an unreciprocated, desperate cry for validation and humanity.
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