Neko on a Hot Tin Roof

or, A Rickshaw Named DesireI rented Onibaba (Demon Woman) because a website recommended it to fans of Yokai Monsters and Kwaidan, two movies about Japanese ghosts and monsters. Plus, it’s got a big demon on the cover!

The truth is that, except for the last twenty minutes or so, it’s not about obakemono at all, and it isn’t what I expected. But it’s one hell of a movie.

It’s unlike any other Japanese movie I’ve seen, contemporary or otherwise. If I had to describe it, I’d say it’s what would happen if you had a Japanese New Wave director take sets and costumes from a samurai movie and make an interpretation of a Tennessee Williams play. With maybe some John Steinbeck and William Faulkner thrown in.

The story is set near Kyoto during the warring states period, and it deals with a woman and her daughter-in-law living in poverty because of the war. The war has ravaged the land and made farming impossible, so they’re forced to murder dying samurai from the battlefields, loot the armor and weapons from the corpses, and sell them for food. Things become even more complicated when a neighboring farmer returns from the war and attempts to take the place of the daughter-in-law’s dead husband.

Onibaba is very much a 60s movie; despite its setting, it’s aggressively modern in its style, editing, music, characterization, and subject matter. There are all kinds of film tricks which come across as tedious and pretentious in other movies, but work perfectly here. Long shots of nothing but flowing grass perfectly convey the idea that civilization has been squeezed out and overtaken by wild nature. Jump-cuts and super-imposed shots give everything a surreal feeling and perfectly capture scenes of people overtaken by passion.

The characters are portrayed as being genuinely destitute and desperate — hairy, filthy, and generally nasty. There’s a lot of breasts and ass to be seen, and even though it’s sexual, it’s not erotic. That’s because they’re living in the most primitive conditions, and also because one third of the breasts belong to an old woman, and most of the ass is that of a dirty, hairy, male war deserter. It was still nice to see a movie showing characters not as “movie-peasants,” carefully arranged to have just the right amount of muck about them, but in true squalor.

Some of my favorite scenes are the ones in which the daughter-in-law runs across the fields at night to meet her lover. Kaneto Shindo filmed the scenes in silence except for the sound of cooing pigeons; in the movie, you can’t quite identify the noise, but get the subliminal impression of surreal urgency and passion. In an interview with the director included on the disc, he points out that he used pigeons because they’re “known for their fecundity,” which adds another layer of meaning to an already effective gimmick.

What impressed me the most is how well the film* conveyed its message, even to those not receptive for it. After watching the interview with Shindo, I realized that I’m a lot more of a prude than he is. Still, I got the message of the film completely, on an almost instinctual level, and I was surprised to hear him describe the process — everything he claims he tried to do with the movie, worked. It’s more like a film you understand than a film you watch.

The movie is about sex. Or more precisely, it’s about people as animals as opposed to products of society. The characters are living in a state of nature at the beginning of the story. Our protagonists are quickly established as murderers, but they’re not the villains. They’re only doing what needs to be done to survive. The war is described several times as a general’s war, a product of the cities — it’s causing the terrible conditions for the peasants, but giving them no benefit. So in the movie’s logic, the protagonists’ actions are justified.

It’s not until the horny newcomer arrives on the scene that the conflict starts. Suddenly, the concerns are societal concerns — jealousy, fear of abandonment, repression, guilt. And it’s only after the mother feels threatened (and unsatisfied in her own lust) that she begins to talk about sin and religion. Not as a means of finding the truth, but as a means of repression and control.

I’ve read some online reviews that describe the movie as showing what happens when people are reduced to their primitive state, but I think that’s just a shade on the simplistic side. It shows societal constructs as just that — man-made constructs, separate from what’s needed for our existence. In Onibaba, the murder of invaders and sex outside of marriage aren’t sinful; the only true sins are jealousy, repression, guilt, and the lust for power and control. I believe a better message to take from the movie is that we’re never completely removed from our “primitive” state, and we should never lose sight of the distinction between what we want and what we need.

* After a year of film school, I resolved never to use the word “film” or “cinema” to describe movies — my token battle against pretension. I’m making an exception in this case, because everything Shindo attempts to do, works, and it works almost like poetry.

Update: One other thing I wanted to mention: I’ve read a few reviews online that translates the title Onibaba as “The Hole,” but that’s incorrect. (It means “Devil Woman” or “Demon Woman” or just “hag”). But the hole, the first thing introduced in the movie and a symbol revisited almost as frequently as the flowing grass, is an important character. In the story, it’s where the two women toss the bodies of their victims. In the movie, it gives an ever-present sense of danger and dread, and also of course represents hell. But hell in a very practical sense — not just a place of punishment for sinners, but the place where everything that’s no longer needed is cast away.