During last year’s “Great Pumpkin” series, I extolled the virtues of the face in horror cinema. It’s so simple, really: few things are as terrifying as the makeup of a face, whether forthrightly demonic or human but just a little . . . off. The doubling terror effect of the mask, then, is not only the fearful visage of the false face but also the possibility of the human one hidden underneath. Kaneto Shindo’s breathtaking Onibaba (1964) exploits this tension to masterful effect, building a slow rhythm to an unbearably frightening climax predicated on the terror of one mask—what it shows and what it conceals.
Though based on a Buddhist parable advocating women’s participation in religious ceremony, Shindo’s nightmarish period piece is an updated, more sexually frank morality tale, set in feudal Japan. With its subject matter and visuals, the film is strikingly similar to Rod Serling’s “The Masks,” a Twilight Zone episode that aired also in 1964, which dealt with age-old themes of the conflict between inward and outward beauty through its titular metaphor. In that short, however, the masks were omnipresent; they had more character than the characters themselves (a wretched family looking to inherit a dying relative’s money), necessarily. In Onibaba, however, Shindo takes a good long while to get us acquainted with his rascals, mainly a peasant mother and her daughter-in-law living in a marshy netherworld amongst reeds and tall grasses, constantly whipping in the wind. A war rages, though we never see anything past the frighteningly enclosed natural world in which they live; the mother’s son (and younger woman’s husband) is fighting, never to be heard from again. Yet this is no grieving mother and wife—whenever a samurai enters their reedy lair, they murder them, steal their armor and weaponry to sell them, and dump their bodies in a deep, cavernous hole in the earth.
As played by the scowling, witchlike Nobuko Otowa and the feral, wolfish Jitsuko Yoshimura, the old and young woman are monsters of desperation; yet their circumstances hardly make them sympathetic, as rarely do Otowa, Yoshimura, or Shindo angle for our compassion. When the missing soldier’s partner (a similarly amoral being) reenters their lives, a depraved love triangle brings them all the breaking point. Yet what truly sets the film off into nightmare territory is the sudden visit, in the film’s second hour, of a masked samurai in the middle of the night, asking the old woman for directions through the marsh. During their deliberate tête-a-tête, he taunts the old woman, saying that beneath his sneering, chin-jutted demon mask is the most handsome face she’s ever seen—yet he refuses to show it to her.
This is just the beginning of some of the most dreadful imagery I’ve seen. Through some diabolical machinations the mask haunts each of the other characters in different, unexpected, and horrific ways. A masterpiece of mood and slowly building tension, Onibaba deserves to be regarded as a forerunner to J-horror, even if it’s hardly a conventional ghost story (or even one at all—Shindo leaves it ambiguous). With little more than expert use of medium long-shot framing and exquisitely creepy lighting, Onibaba brings a plausible hell to earth.