One of the most iconic pieces of J-horror of all-time is Onibaba, a 1964 film directed by Kaneto Shindo. Much like the 1999 J-horror film, Audition (also covered on here), the film has gathered a legion of fans from critics and other directors, including Edgar Wright and Mark Kermode, the latter of which has called it one of the “scariest films” he’s ever seen.
The plot follows two unnamed women – one young (Jitsuko Yoshimura) and one middle-aged (Nobuko Otowa) – who are joined together because of younger woman’s marriage to the older woman’s son. Due to the son being off in the Civil War, the women are left on their own, and begin to kill soldiers to steal their possessions. Meanwhile, another man, Hachi (Kei Sato) moves in near them, and begins an attraction to the younger woman, and this drives a wedge between the two women.
Much like Audition, Onibaba is a really haunting experience, that has an uneasy and queasy tension through a lot of it’s run-time. But, crucially, the real scary part of the film comes in the last part of the movie, during the last 10 minutes. That is where the movie shows it’s to be really terrifying picture.
At the beginning, the film is actually a slow building 3-parter, surrounding around the Younger Woman, Older Woman and Hachi. Shindo has real confidence in the movie, and is perfectly fine with the movie centring purely on these 3 actors. It sounds like from the outset, that it might of had a sitcom-like format, however, that shouldn’t put you off – the sheer lack of actors and characters just adds to the film’s haunting atmosphere.
Also, all the actors pull it off. Yoshimura, Otowa, and Sato are all really good, and really embody their characters brilliantly. All 3 of the characters are also really well-developed and fleshed out, and this makes for complex viewing. Much in the same way as a lot of J-horror films, this film does not have many heroes or villains, and in fact, we are aligned to relate to every character, despite their questionable actions.
The film is also not that action packed, and can be a little slow at times. But much in the same way as the films of David Lynch, the film is all about atmosphere and mood. Much of this comes from the uneasy silence that permeates the film. Shindo is a filmmaker who prefers not to have much dialogue in his films, and this just makes Onibaba all the more uncomfortable and uneasy.
What’s so impressive about the film is that you can often feel what is coming off the screen. For the most part, cinema is a visual experience, that you can see and hear, but Onibaba feels like more than that. When the characters are dealing with extraordinary heat, you can feel how uncomfortable and distressed the characters are with this.
Weather also plays a big part of the film. Along with the sizzling heat, there is sometimes rain that comes into play. The rain just punctuates the drama and dread that the audience and characters are feeling. Not only that, but the weather also acts as a sort of pathetic fallacy, as it often happens when something bad is about to happen, and this becomes a huge warning for viewers.
The film also has some quite terrifying imagery. The iconic image of the Japanese mask appears throughout the film. Terrifying and scary, the mask is used by the older woman to scare the younger woman out of having an affair with Hachi. The mask is very frightening – it weird and surreal, and you can understand why it has become an iconic staple of Japanese horror culture.
This mask also plays into the heart-stopping, palpitating climax of the film. As is often a tradition with J-horror films (like Audition), the film is all pretty much a build-up to this climax, and this just makes it all the more terrifying. It is also great to see a movie have confidence in not having a completely tidy, non-ambiguous ending, and leave certain things left unanswered.
Overall, Onibaba is a really thrilling piece of J-horror. It is an iconic piece of Japanese cinema, and you should watch it just for that, but you should also check it out because it is a really thrilling, scary and well-crafted piece of horror cinema.