A lesson in the nature of the possessive, and in brilliant monochrome to boot!
Written By: Kaneto Shindô
Directed By: Kaneto Shindô
Possessiveness is not a desirable trait. This is a theme that has been touched on in the literary medium, film medium, radio drama medium, and many more mediums. Yet, too often the possessiveness that is being touched on exists in the context of power. Onibaba bucks that trend completely. Power is not an issue in this film, the possessiveness found in Onibaba springs from the well of fear.
The demon mask is a representation of the fear that permeates the film. In fact, the mask is a brilliant plot device and a wonderful design. The mask looks scary, but a closer look at the mask reveals a face contorted in fear. It’s my belief that most people, in the world of the film, who see the mask are not scared because of the mask actually being scary. They are scared because of what the mask represents, and that is their deepest fears. The samurai who first brings the mask into the film fears the destruction of his countenance. Kichi’s mother fears being alone, while Kichi’s wife fears growing into a version of Kichi’s mother. The mask reflects all of these fears on the various characters, and those who wear the mask are possessed by the mask which results in their ruination.
I do wish that more could have been done with the character of Hachi, he is the one weak link in the film. He serves his purpose as far as being a propellant of the plot goes. However, his character never really comes to life and his final moment is too much of a “eh, whatever” kind of moment. Hachi feels small when compared to Kichi’s mother and Kichi’s wife. They are fully realized, and that is true because of how fully realized their fears are. Hachi may fear something, but we never really find out the truth of his character like we do with the two main women.
Nobuko Otowa, as Kichi’s mother, and Jitsuko Yoshimura, as Kichi’s wife, give great performances. Their interaction is how the possessive theme of Onibaba plays out. Kichi’s mother can’t let go of Kichi’s wife. Nor can she see how her possessiveness is ultimately going to drive Kichi’s wife away. Kichi’s wife wants to possess her own destiny so strongly that she doesn’t really care for what her sneaking around could possibly do to Kichi’s mother. I’d like to believe that the final moments of the film aren’t just Kichi’s wife running away from Kichi’s mother. Rather, they are Kichi’s wife running away from the possessive nature that ruled Kichi’s mothers life.
The wonderful acting of the two leads and the splendidly implemented theme of possessiveness plays out in the form of lusciously realized monochrome images. I found Onibaba to be a stunning picture visually speaking. There’s something about the crisp nature of the black and white cinematography found in Onibaba that is spellbinding. Toss in an eerie and pulsing score and it’s easy to see why Onibaba is a movie that builds to its big moments and pulls them off with great aplomb.
People have been telling me for a few years now that I would love Onibaba. They were right, and I’m very thankful for that fact. I loved the build of the film, with the mask not becoming a factor until well late into the proceedings. The two main characters are real because of the time we spend with them. Their fears ring true, and the possessive nature that drives them feels all too tangible. Once the more traditional horror elements come into play I had already bought into Onibaba hook, line, and sinker. You can now add my name to the long list of people that will gladly tell anyone who will listen that they should love Onibaba.