Dir. Kaneto Shindô
Reviewer. Dan Cook
Often appearing on lists of the scariest movies ever made, Kaneto Shindô’s sexually charged 1964 thriller ONIBABA may not be a horror picture but it has more than enough strange imagery and dark theming to not only disturb but genuinely terrify. A classic example of the Jidaigeki genre of Japanese cinema that primarily focuses on the people of the Edo era of history (1603-1868), ONIBABA is an icily eerie fable of grief, lust and revenge that puts a monstrous face onto the disfiguring traumas of postwar Japan.
Set in a swampy marsh outside of 15th century Kyoto, ONIBABA tells the story of a middle-aged woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her young daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) who, to eke out a living, sell the valuable armour and weaponry of wandering samurai they mercilessly slaughter. After a defected neighbour (Kei Satō) returns from conflict with the news that the son of the family has died, his young widow soons falls into the bed of the prodigal soldier - much to the dismay of the older woman who quickly comes to distrust her secretive daughter-in-law. However, when she comes across a lone warrior wearing a grotesque demon mask, the spurned older woman concocts a cruel plot to bring an end to the relationship she sees as both adulterous and a threat to her murderous way of life.
It’s hard to do justice to a film as purposefully uncanny as ONIBABA in mere words because, like the best horror, it’s one of those that has to be experienced to be truly appreciated. It’s a consistently beautiful looking film, stunningly photographed in widescreen monochrome “Tohoscope” by cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda who utilises the endless ocean of wind-swept reeds to create a very palpable sense of suffocating claustrophobia while the effective jazz-inflected underscoring by regular Shindô collaborator Hikaru Hiyashi combined with the soundscape of constant wind and rain helps to ratchet up the tension both erotic and psychological to an almost unbearable degree.
However, it’s in its unforgettable iconography that ONIBABA has cemented its place in motion picture history - most notably that of the horned mask whose subtext-laden roots lie in the gruesome myths of the shin-Buddhist subculture and whose mortifying visage would later inspire, among many things, the face of the demon Pazuzu in William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST less than a decade later. A true titan of cinema and an obvious progenitor for the J-horror wave of the 1990’s and 2000’s, ONIBABA is a sinister masterpiece of atmospheric dread that stands out as one of the most indefinably chilling movies I’ve ever seen.