Friday, November 9, 2007

Japanese Screams Volume 2

Welcome back to my look at the underappreciated, beautiful world of Japanese horror films in the 1960s. This time around we have a captivating number from a director whose work is completely unavailable in the US with one exception (well two if you count his documentary on Kenji Mizoguchi, but that thing is so long and meandering it feels more like someone's home movies than it does a documentary).

by Kaneto Shindo
Onibaba (Demon, to us westerners, again, short and to-the-point) begin in 16th century Japan and is proof that anything watched alone and at night is worlds more frightening than the alternatives. The whole country is in crisis and men are fleeing from their positions with their armor still tied to them. It is because of these cowardly acts that two women have managed to survive in their small hut surrounded by miles of tall grass. Their sustenance comes from trading in pilfered goods from weakened samurai to a disgusting entrepreneur who lives in a cave. Samurai hobble in to the grass; the women see to it they don’t hobble out, strip them of their possessions and turn their gear in for food, dumping their bodies in a deep hole in the ground. In the 16th century anywhere, I’m fairly certain this was considered an honest living, and to be fair the women only do this, stay together, because they are bound by the fact that the older of the two women’s son is the younger woman’s fiancée and right now they’re both waiting for him to return from the same war that keeps these alive. Things change irrevocably for the would-be family when Hachi, their deadbeat neighbor with whom their mutual relation joined up with returns without money or company. Clearly, through some fault of Hachi’s, the young man was killed, leaving both women vulnerable. The older woman is content to keep robbing (and making) corpses as if nothing had happened, but the younger woman has more than food on her mind. It isn’t too long before she and Hachi begin making love behind the old woman’s back. Naturally the old woman fears for herself as it would mean having to kill men twice her size without help. Well, the ultimate test of her forced independence comes when one such injured samurai happens upon her hut one night bearing an unlikely gift.

The plot of this film is based on an old Buddhist folktale, one that has essentially the same plot as the Christian hymn that Ulla Isaksson used when writing The Virgin Spring for Ingmar Bergman. Both are cautionary tales that serve to remind women what happens when you don't go to church. Well feminism’s loss was art cinema’s gain. Onibaba is unlike most Japanese movies at the time in nearly every way; the theme, for once, has nothing to do with honor, and doesn’t have as much to do with family as it does the destruction of family (and in a really intriguing way, one that stabs tradition in the gut). The cinematography by Kiyoma Kuroda is perfect; the simultaneously endless and claustrophobic feel has much to do with his camera. The tall grass that surrounds their home hems in the action and it makes for some of the most arresting photography of a decade filled with arresting photography. Kaneto Shindo must have dreamt this film for months before he made it because every image works perfectly; the two women sleeping night after night with their breasts exposed on the straw floor of their hut; the deep hole in the ground that serves as both livelihood and undoing; the young woman’s lustful flight through the grass to Hachi’s hut hundreds of yards away while the remarkable score matches her every step; the entrance of the titular demon; everything is nightmarish while keeping with verisimilitude. If Sheldon Dick or Walker Evans had photographed medieval Japan it would have looked like Onibaba. The music adds to the feel of desperation that haunts the characters; minimalist drum and vocal music that underscores the chase scenes, making something already primal and erotic downright animalistic. I give this film my deepest admiration because though the odds were stacked against it as a horror film (a shock film with but one shock) managed not only to stop my heart when it needed to, but is a wholly unique entry into world cinema. When has a social critique been so completely bare, honest, lush and infinite; so much said with so few words.
Oh and to seek out any plot information or additional photos before seeing this (or any of these films) is to be really mean to yourself. If you don't go into these films with a blank slate you are doing yourself an injustice you will always regret.

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