Onibaba (鬼婆, Kaneto Shindo, 1964)

How do you go on living in a world turned upside-down? It may be the central theme of post-war cinema, but few have tackled it in such a direct if allegorical way as Kaneto Shindo, repurposing a Buddhist parable about the perils of duplicity as lesson in the dangers of the age, defined by a cruel hunger which could not be satisfied by bread alone even if there were bread to satisfy it. Onibaba (鬼婆), as the title implies, makes a villainess of an old woman driven to extremes by her chaotic times, but perhaps suggests that the times make villains of us all.

Deep in the war-torn country of 14th century Japan the imperial capital of Kyoto has been razed, a horse is said to have given birth to a cow, and the sun rose black in the sky leaving day as black as night. With farmers dragged away from their fields to fight in a war they barely understand on behalf of distant lords, the grain basket of the nation is close to empty. An old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have learned to make ends meet by hunting battle-weary samurai, stripping them of their armour, and throwing their bodies into a gigantic pit sitting right in the middle of the tall grass like a gravitational black hole of human compassion. The old woman has been patiently waiting for the return of her son, Kichi, who was taken away by the samurai, certain that everything is going back to normal when the war is over. Kichi, however, will not be returning. Hachi (Kei Sato), another young man from the village taken along with him, brings the sad news that the old woman’s son was beaten to death by a mob of farmers much like herself resentful of the war’s intrusion onto their land. 

Everything becomes food, Hachi explains, a sentiment extremely familiar to those who lived through the chaos of the immediate post-war era. Pointing at a baseline problem in the feudal economy, the war starves the poor and makes the wealthy hungry. The fields run wild with no men to tend them, as if symbolising the madness of the times. Lost in the tall grass, samurai and peasant alike search for an exit but are drawn only towards that black pit of human cruelty, more beasts than men driven by the need to survive alone. 

Without her son, the old woman is unable to farm, and without her daughter-in-law she is unable to survive through killing. She knows that these are times without feeling and that if Kichi will not return there is no reason for her daughter-in-law to stay. Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama), the broker for the looted samurai armour, makes an indecent proposal of extra millet for sexual favours but the old woman defiantly turns him down, perhaps not quite realising the offer was likely not intended for her. Which is to say that Hachi is not the only man in town, but is perhaps the only “desirable” one. Such desires that there are apparently cannot be satisfied by a crusty old man like Ushi, but are there all the same. Hachi presents a triple threat. The old woman knows her survival depends on the younger one, but also that she has no means to keep her now that her son is dead. She offers Hachi her body instead but he, as she did Ushi, baulks at the idea of slaking his lust on such an old woman. 

When a strange samurai wanders into her hut and orders her at the point of his sword to lead him out of the tall grass a solution presents itself. The old woman lures him to the black pit and prises away the ornate oni mask which he claimed he wore to protect his beautiful face from the ravages of war. Despite the fact that the samurai appears to have suffered from some kind of aggressive skin disease, the old woman unwisely decides to put the mask on her own face, convincing her daughter-in-law that her relationship with Hachi is sinful and appearing out of nowhere dressed as a demon to remind her that she’s going to hell. The mask’s crazed expression becomes fused with her own face, cementing her transformation into a “demoness” which it seems had already begun with stretch of white disrupting the uniformity of her hair and the kabuki-esque exaggeration of her eyebrows. Running desperately through the tall grass she cries out that she’s human, but this world has made demons of them all. The black pit of hunger knows no fill, and there can be no satisfaction in a world so devoid of human feeling.


Onibaba is currently streaming on BFI Player as part of the BFI’s Japan season.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

The Iron Crown (鉄輪, Kaneto Shindo, 1972)

iron crownFemale sexuality often takes centre stage in the work of Kaneto Shindo but in the Iron Crown (鉄輪, Kanawa) it does so quite literally as he refracts a modern tale of marital infidelity through the mirror of ancient Noh theatre. Taking his queue from the Noh play of the same name, Shindo intercuts the story of a contemporary middle aged woman who finds herself betrayed and then abandoned by her selfish husband with the supernaturally tinged tale of a woman going mad in the Heian era.

The film begins in a theatrical sequence in which Shindo’s wife and muse Nobuko Otowa appears in traditional dress and declares that she going to pray at a shrine to request vengeance on the lying, cheating husband who’s ruined her life. As part of this, she asks to be turned into a vengeful demon so that she may properly enact her revenge. However, after a while Shindo interrupts the action to return to the contemporary era and a man and woman in bed who keep being disturbed nuisance phone calls which turn out to be from the man’s wife (also played by Otowa) standing in a phone box outside.

The husband and his mistress – a much younger, sexually liberated woman, are given no respite from the unsettling phone calls. Haunted by the unseen figure of the betrayed wife, the couple eventually attempt to move around to avoid her ending up in a strange, otherworldly hotel. They become convinced that the wife has followed them and is telephoning from within the hotel itself despite having been told that they are in fact the hotel’s only guests. In the final sequence of the Noh play, the wife, who is now a demon, finds herself unable to enact her revenge in the way that she would like but vows to await another chance though her demonic powers eventually desert her, leaving her as an invisible ghost with only her voice remaining.

Shindo operates on three interconnected layers each radiating from the original Noh play. First of all there’s the central contemporary story of the adulterous husband, his mistress and the betrayed wife which is intercut with scenes from the Noh play but this is divided too – into a “realistic” depiction as in the wife fleeing through the forest and of outwardly “theatrical” scenes in which the entire stage apparatus is visible with enclosed walls and the musicians seated to the side of the stage area.

In one sense, it’s true that the position of the Heian era wife in this instance in a much harder one to bear than that of her modern counterpart who faces less of the stigma of the divorced woman and probably does have much more possibility of rebuilding her life even if she has made large sacrifices and wasted her youth on an unworthy man. However, just in the Noh play the hurt and resentment born by the unnamed modern woman is enough to develop into a supernatural force in its own right which pursues the new couple not only through the direct means of her phone calls but even begins to haunt them causing a degree of hysterical paranoia in the quite cowardly husband who even starts to see the “ghost” of his wife standing accusingly before him.

The real and the dreamlike theatre of vengeance blur into each other becoming evermore indistinct. By the time the adulterous couple have arrived at the hotel they’ve already entered another realm. Though the real world pokes through occasionally, the hotel itself takes on an ethereal quality with its staff each wearing the white makeup of the Noh theatre and spouting strange, oddly straightforward dialogue. Yet the couple themselves don’t seem to be able to detect the oddness around them or even be able to tell it apart from that which is recognisably part of their world, so caught up are they in the guilt and torment brought about by the unseen presence of the abandoned wife.

Shindo adopts a complicated, experimental structure to explore what is at heart a simple idea – the timeless quality of a woman’s jealousy. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and even if not physically present, the spectre of the former wife becomes a disruptive force in the husband’s intentions of leaving her behind to pursue other opportunities with a younger woman. Fascinating yet elusive, The Iron Crown is perhaps best considered with a firm knowledge of the original Noh play in hand, yet its haunting imagery and experimental take on form make it an intriguing entry into Shindo’s diverse filmography.


Unsubtitled trailer: