November 21, 2013

Staying Alive

Onibaba (1964), the Kaneto Shindo film I'd been meaning to see for ten years, isn't particularly terrifying or scaled to overwhelm. But its photographic inventiveness and shocks (which are both visual and sexual) have an atavistic creepiness; watching these famine-stricken peasants run through fields of Susuki grass, wolfishly chasing down mortally wounded soldiers, puts your nerves on edge.

Wolves. Nobuko Otowa, Kei Sato, and Jitsuko Yoshimura
Like the barren heath in King Lear, the setting is a Hobbesian marketplace of killing, pilfering from the dead, and exchanging the plunder for food. The Japanese countryside is a wasteland, bereft of a moral center. The social hierarchy (during a period of medieval civil war) is nothing more than an immediate function of who cooperates with whom, or who preys on whom. It's often the smaller, nimbler predators—like the two women—who maintain control. But the movie's point of view is that "nature red in tooth and claw" will out; alliances disintegrate amid a heated atmosphere of animal sex and betrayal. In the end, the two women and their male partner are revealed as opportunistic demons who have sacrificed their humanity.

Onibaba isn't as all-encompassing as Kon Ichikawa's masterpiece Fires on the Plain (1959)—the latter has a forgelike intensity that makes it a visionary, emotional experience. But the two movies have similar themes: the grisly horrors of war, cannibalism (figurative in Onibaba and literal in Fires on the Plain), and the black comedy of the superior strength of flesh over spirit.


Anonymous said...

It's the sound/music of this feature that I found striking.

It would have been more effective if toned down a notch. It should have crept up on the viewer than trample all over him.

Woman in the Prunes is the more interesting work.

Anonymous said...

Japanese horror never scared me.

And I don't consider films like UGETSU as horror though they might have horror elements.

KWAIDAN is a great work though. The segment Hoichi the Earless is one of the peaks of cinema.