This is definitely one of the most disturbing, but at the same time fascinating, movies I have ever seen. It is packed with numerous psychological references that can surprise, as much as they can shock. The somber atmosphere of this film reminds me of Kwaidan, another great Japanese horror, which came out in the same year.
It is crucial to mention that through most of its runtime Onibaba isn’t a genuine horror flick. It’s more of a dim, naturalistic story about human weaknesses and frightening consequences of being envious and overly controlling.
It presents a dreadful story of two outlawed women (a young woman and her mother-in-law), who, in order to survive, have to kill and rob all the tired soldiers passing by their hiding place. They then sell all the stolen goods to a greedy merchant, living in a strange cave nearby.
And all would be well if it wasn’t for a persistent stranger, who pays these women a visit on one sunny day. The younger female, whose husband went to war a long time ago and his whereabouts are still unknown, gives herself in to this sleazy deserter. She needs to satisfy her sexual urges and this seems like a perfect opportunity. However, the situation goes a little out of control when the older one realizes what’s happening right under her nose. Enormous jealousy takes possession of her soul, as she tries different methods to stop that deuced relationship.
The most vital part brings us to the climax of this mesmerizing story. This is the part that has the power to frighten anyone. The older woman finds the ultimate way to halt the meetings of the ‘damned’ couple. She grabs a mysterious mask (that she took some time before from the face of a disfigured samurai) and under cover of darkness hides in the tall grass. Her plan works out perfectly. The young woman is scared to death and isn’t able to get to her lover’s place. However, the after-effects of the old woman’s actions are enormous and simply horrific. It seems like a horrible curse surrounds the mask and whoever puts it on can’t escape its mystical force…
The sudden intensification of pace of the movie in the last 15 minutes builds a greatly eerie atmosphere. It momentarily turns the picture into a ghost-like story, accompanied by heavy rain, severely accentuated sounds and sharp camera movements that interact with the act of ‘haunting’.
If you are a fan of Japanese cinema Onibaba should be on your list, as it is not only one of the country’s strangest, but also one of the most unique, pictures. There are some visual scares, sure. But no one can deny that the true power of the movie lies in its ability to frighten through the psychological emphasis on the characters’ profiles.