XL Popcorn – Onibaba

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
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Onibaba-2Title: Onibaba
Director: Kaneto Shido
Year: 1964
Country: Japan

Going into this I expected Onibaba to be an actual horror film as that is what it has been designated on IMDB. I would dispute that label since while it has some horror elements in the final act it is mostly a period drama with a lot of dark overtones.

Set during a civil war in the 14th century Onibaba centres on a middle-aged woman and her daughter-in-law (whose names we never actually find out) trying to make ends meet my selling the armour of soldiers that they themselves have killed after finding them lost in the surrounding tall grass. It’s a meagre living that has been working well until their neighbour returns. He brings news that the only relation that tied these women together is now dead and, in turn, threatens their singular world as he begins to forge a passionate relationship with the younger woman.

The question I began to ask myself halfway through the film was “where is the titular onibaba” with onibaba being a monster taking the form of a hag. Whilst the older woman was really pushing it with how she was acting with regards to her widowed daughter-in-law finding a new man thus possibly abandoning her I have a lot of sympathy. She acknowledges how much she needs the girl and, by the end, gets desperate and who wouldn’t when you are someone who has pretty much lost everything and whose highlight of the week is eating the stray dog you just pummelled to death with a nearby boulder.

I found my answer about 20 minutes before the end of the film where the mask from the film’s poster makes an appearance on a samurai who threatens the older woman to either guide him through the grass or be killed. She manages to outwit him and lead him to his death so she can sell off his armour… but she then becomes the titular Onibaba by donning the demonic mask and using it as a way to control a situation that was spiralling away from her.

Yes, she actually wears a mask and waits in the tall grass for her daughter-in-law so she can scare her with fears of being sent to hell for engaging in extra-marital relations. It’s under-handed, but I actually found it pretty funny how gullible the girl was. But, as in all movie traditions, this backfires.

The final sequence where the mask is stuck on the older woman’s face is truly harrowing. Her screaming in pain as her daughter-in-law turns the tables and relishes with her new power is just staggering. I mean, I get it. Your crazy mother-in-law has been dressing up as a demon to scare you away from the man you lust after. Fine. But taking as much relish in bashing her in the face with an axe as a means to remove a mask that won’t come off? It’s beyond sadistic. The ending chase through the tall grass as the older woman, whose face is now a bloody mess, pleads with the daughter-in-law that she is a human and not a demon is nothing short of tragic.

It’s a film that stays with you and has made me question what I would be doing if I was in the same position as the older woman. Would I allow myself to be abandoned or would I use every under-handed trick in my arsenal to ensure my survival? I just hope I don’t have to find out.


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