onibaba top

“Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary…” – me, ordering three bloody marys before getting drunk in a bathroom

The Film: Kaneto Shindô’s horror fable about the power – and danger – of fear

The Potable: Three bloody masons, a variant on the bloody mary involving bacon

Think back on all the great costumes of cinema. Dorothy’s red slippers. Marty McFly’s puffy vest. The #9 Mud Dogs jersey from The Waterboy. Now consider the Onibaba mask. A less recognizable item, perhaps, but one no less striking. It deserves, in my humble opinion, to hang between the Scream ghostface mask and the Hannibal Lecter mouth guard in a top-notch Planet Hollywood.

Set in war-torn, feudal Japan, Onibaba revolves around a mother and daughter-in-law. With the men away for battle, they survive in the wind-swept reeds by murdering wayward samurai and selling their armor for 50% above retail. The bodies get dumped in a hole. One day, however, a man returns from the war. Is is the mother’s son? The daughter-in-law’s husband? It is, alas, their dipshit neighbor, who has returned with news that war is bad so he quit, and that the mother/daughter-in-law’s son/husband is dead. War, everyone agrees, does indeed blow.


Onibaba works as a kind of three-character chamber piece, the chamber being the reed field and the two houses within. The eligible young widow begins an affair with the neighbor, and the mother is none too pleased to see her son’s memory so quickly forgotten.

The lighting, I will say, is excellent, and especially crucial in a black and white movie. Whether natural or artificial, everything truly is illuminated.

I was incredibly stressed by a number of elements at this point in the film. Without a firm understanding of the field’s geography, I was constantly concerned that one of our principals would be gobbled up by the hole as they rushed back and forth through the field. I was also very shocked to see bare breasts in a black and white film from 1964. But most importantly, the anticipation was killing me. By the 45-minute mark, there was still no sign of the goddamn Onibaba mask. Where was the goddamn Onibaba mask?

It makes its first appearance, at last, on the face of a samurai who wanders into the mother’s home while the daughter-in-law is off bumping uglies with the neighbor. It’s probably four in the morning, but the strange samurai demands a plate of baked beans, slurping them through a straw since he refuses to remove the mask. Finished, he burps and tells the mother to lead him safely through the field.

The mask is scary, the samurai is not. As they walk in the moonlight, he keeps bragging about how handsome he is and how he’s such a stud and rich, all while dusting the reeds with his bean farts. Fed up with the braggart, the mother tricks him, kills him, and takes the mask as a prize. What are her plans for it? Watch and see! And then tell me because I fell asleep before the end.

Onibaba embed

The film’s soundtrack features more electric guitars than one would expect for a feudal period piece. Composed by Hikaru Hayashi, the score begins and ends with heavily percussive numbers that are a little noisy for my taste, but that certainly make the cinematic experience pop off the screen.

All great horror films tap into real anxieties. Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, The Shining, The Exorcist, Psycho, Dracula; they all move beyond lazy jump-scares to portray fears that are recognizable and human. Onibaba is steeped in sex and questions about loyalty and vanity, but it’s also concerned with morality and the dangers of self-righteousness. It combines elements of folktales and traditional Japanese Noh theater to depict a uniquely eerie fable of lust, jealousy, and loss.

For his part, Shindô described his film as being symbolic of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will, however, respectfully disagree, as the events of Onibaba take place well before World War II.

Verdict: onibaba, onibaba, golly what a day

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