Thursday 20 June 2013

1,001 Films: "Onibaba/Demon Woman" (1964)

The screen fills with long grass, into which stray warriors, bloodied and bruised, come to take shelter. Yet there can be no real sanctuary here, for these walking wounded will be found out eventually - not, as it transpires, by their enemies, but by a mother-and-daughter-in-law team, who immediately skewer the usual paradigm of women as angels of mercy in times of war by putting pikes through the soldiers' chests. The women are strippers: not in the G-string-and-stiletto sense - though they clearly remain naked under their loose robes, and are prone to flashing the goods - but in the sense of merciless asset strippers, removing their victims' bodies of anything that might have resale value (armour, say), before dumping the corpses in a vast pit.

The opening ten minutes of Kaneto Shindo's film Onibaba remains as effective a fictional demonstration as any of the ruthless efficiency of capitalism, as the ladies do all the above, then return to their hut in the wilderness to stuff themselves silly with the grain they've bought with their ill-gotten gains. Shindo, one of the Japanese cinema's foremost leftists, had already made one parable of the new consumerism in 1961's The Naked Island; here, he relishes doing something bolder and more cinematic still, its wild streaks of nudity, violence and outright horror ironically transforming what must originally have been meant as cautionary tale (or legend) into a flagrantly commercial proposition.

The film's own sympathies, like the reeds, are forever blowing in the wind, however. After its opening salvo, Onibaba composes itself once again, and begins against all the odds to wonder whether these women, first presented as aggressors, might also be considered victims of war, deprived as they have been by combat of their sons and husbands - their breadwinners, if you like. In the context of the prevailing base, economic Darwinism - reducing its subjects to feeding, fucking and fighting - we might well see something heroic, or at least admirable, in the women's scrappiness, their ability to eke out a living in the face of death; not for the first time in 60s radical theory, the hole becomes a site of female empowerment. (Particularly when set against all those men running round with their swords out.)

Yet even this notional bond of sisterhood is fragile, and cannot last long: when the daughter-figure breaks ranks with her mother for a roll in the hay with a deserter, everyone falls prey to the demons that lurk wherever desires are inflamed, as a combination of natural and supernatural elements prove to be the characters' downfall - though the very last line has the ring of a cry of defiance. Shindo gives it the storytelling, pictorial sense and otherness of indigenous folk art, but the film also appears universal enough in its themes to be able to play comfortably with either the similarly elemental Woman of the Dunes (which replaced the whispering grass with sand) or Polanski's Cul-de-Sac (another great, warped love triangle in a remote location) as an outré double-bill. However you see it, it remains both a tremendously atmospheric ghost story and one of the weirdest, not to mention sexiest, denunciations of the military-industrial complex that you'll ever see.

Onibaba is available on DVD on Eureka Entertainment's Masters of Cinema label.

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