Saturday, August 29, 2009

[Japanese Film Festival] Onibaba (鬼婆)

Having Fun

The film opens with a shot of the deep, dark hole in the ground of some tall grasslands, which serve as the dumping ground of an old woman (Nobuko Otawa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) when they kill off straggling soldiers who venture into their territory. Think of it as that infamous pit you see in 300. Set at a time during feudal Japan where two emperors squared off against each other, it is a time of impoverishment, and the men all out to serve either emperors, leaving the women to fend for themselves. These two though do it through murder, and gathering the weaponry of their victims, bartering them for food.

Lifestyle is sparse, consisting of a very rudimentary and routine lifestyle of hunting, eating and sleeping, until one day their son/husband Kichi's friend Hachi (Kei Sato) appears, and learnt that he had escaped while Kichi had likely perished. Now having a virile young man and a pretty lass left alone in the village slowly develops into passionate lust, with the girl scooting off at every opportunity to partake in the pleasures of the flesh. Which of course threatens the lifestyle of the old lady, needing able hands to assist in their continued sustenance.

Shot in black and white, this Kaneto Shindo film deals with the selfishness of humanity, where relations exists because of advantages to be gain, mutual or otherwise. Sexual gratification is one, and for the old lady, the confession's quite clear as to why she requires her daughter-in-law to continue what they had set out to do, rather than to spend too much time with Hachi. The first half of the film sets up the premise, and in some ways is kind of repetitive, and comical even, to see the lass run miles and miles as fast as she could, just to get laid, perchance seeing the probability of a new life with someone who had deserted from the war.

The second half came across with a touch of comedy, especially when the old lady, now exasperated and very nearly resigning to her fate, chances upon a scary Samurai general who hides his identity behind a sinister looking mask. She constantly probes him with questions while being forced to lead him out of the grasslands, and to everyone's surprise, I think the loudest laughter came from his reason why the need to wear a mask. Which of course doesn't exactly tell you so, and creates a sense of mystery shrouding its cursed origins.

This is not Jim Carrey's green mask that could help in granting its wearer unlimited powers of course, but set out to help the old woman do exactly what she needed, though with some expected results. Perhaps it's to say that one should learn to let go at times, and definitely not plot evil in case of karmic retribution. And with the parable of always looking carefully before you leap, leaving the finale open ended for that 50-50 speculation whether the glass is half full or empty.

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