Written & Directed by Kaneto Shindo
Societies collapse. No civilization on this planet hasn’t gone through an often violent transformation. Nestled within the comforting, indulgent bosom of the imperial core that is the United States, you can easily be swayed to believe “America is eternal,” but that’s thinking with a child’s mind. The United States isn’t even the same country it was when it was founded. This is why the study of history is vital to understanding our present. Humans make the same mistakes over and over, the clothes and hairstyles just change. It is also beneficial to look at art from periods of societal collapse and art that reflects on them. The chaos of collapse is a fruitful place to find human drama, moments that get to the very center of our experiences of survival.
In mid-14th century Japan, the nation was in a period of civil war. Soldiers flee the battlefields as the tide turns against them. Some seek shelter in a field of reeds, believing they can safely hide. Two women lie in wait, armed with a long spear. The Old Woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law, The Young Woman (Jitsuko Yoshimura). Once they kill the cowards, they loot their bodies, selling their armor and weapons to a nearby merchant. The bodies are chucked down a deep pit hidden in the field. One day, after returning from selling their scavenged bits, the women find their neighbor Hachi has returned from the war.
The women ask about Kichi, the man that connects them, and Hachi explains they both deserted at the same time. Later, Kichi was killed while the men were stealing food from farmers. The Old Woman begins seething and blames Hachi for her son’s death, telling her daughter-in-law to stay away from him. This only exacerbates the Young Woman’s loneliness, and she begins slipping away at night to have sex with Hachi. The Old Woman discovers this and begins plotting ways to get back at them. Eventually, a lost samurai wearing a mask in the visage of an oni (Japanese demon) wanders into the field, which begins to unravel life for the three people living in this place.
One of Shindo’s recurring motifs in his work was a focus on women enduring great suffering in the midst of a societal collapse in Japan’s past. In this regard, he is considered a social realist, choosing not to focus on grandiose displays of masculine glory but on the violence that trickles down to the innocent people trying to live their lives. As France’s cinematic New Wave was reframing the conversation around film and its ability to insert itself into politics, Japan had a similar movement. The direct U.S. Occupation of Japan ended at this time, and with it went the censors that had scoured Japanese cinema to ensure it did not critique the United States or the government it installed.
Rather than didactically presenting stories about the moment of reconstruction and the aftermath of the nuclear atrocities done on Japan, Shindo, and his peers made historical dramas that reflected modern anxieties. Shindo’s perspective is that the evil of influential people eventually causes even the most mundane, harmless people to become savages, the denial of basic human needs and dignity results in a society that cannot function and where people turn on each other to meet their needs. “People are both the devil and God,” said writer/director Kaneto Shindo when Onibaba was first released.
The ever-looming pit in Onibaba is the all-consuming maw of violence and evil. It holds the evidence of the crimes committed by the Old Woman and her daughter-in-law. The flesh may rot away, but the bones remain. If you know anything about the structure of dramatic writing, you’ll also recognize it as a form of Chekhov’s Gun, waiting there to play a role in what will inevitably be a tragic finale. Ironically, the film is based on a Buddhist parable intended to drive women to religious ceremonies. Shindo had no interest in mindlessly defending the old ways; he’s educated enough to understand that regression means death and that his culture will survive only if they tackle the horrors of the moment by escaping nostalgia and personal grievance.
The women behave like insects, stripping the soldiers’ carcasses to transform that into their continued survival. The audience is undoubtedly wondering what sort of survival this is, living in complete squalor without knowing how life will be from day to day. There comes the point where survival is done without thought, a series of motor responses, but we must contemplate how much strife we choose to endure. My wife and I have half-joked, half-seriously said that if society becomes like a Mad Max hellscape, we’ll just off ourselves with a nice cocktail of narcotics. I have zero interest in joining the Water King’s Warboys in combat with the Duke of Bullets. I’ll just see myself off this mortal coil, thank you.
As inhuman as these women behave, there is still something human inside them, and Shindo reveals this as desire & sexuality. The merchant propositions them with the promise of a bonus added onto the payment for their haul. The Old Woman rejects him. Yet, The Young Woman barely misses a beat when her chance to hop into bed with Kichi arrives. Who could blame her? She remained chaste this entire time, waiting for her husband to return. She kept herself alive by murdering deserting soldiers and scouring their corpses. The toil of that routine would break anyone down into no longer feeling like a person. Kichi provides her with warmth, pleasure, and love, or at least the illusion, to help make Hell a liveable situation. The Old Woman isn’t above it either, baring her breasts and attempting to seduce Kichi when she has her chance. It is one of the most human things a person can do.
Onibaba shows us what we can become, what people before us have become when forced into brutal, dehumanizing situations. We are just as vulnerable to this way of life as our ancestors were before us. Those of us who are Americans have merely been coddled and mollified about the truth of the world, especially at present. The unipolar era of American dominance is over, and a new multipolar world is being born. Maybe it will be worse. Perhaps it will be better. We can’t know that yet. First, however, we must consider how we choose to go forward. Will we cling to a crumbling worldview and resort to savagery to survive, or will we hold to our humanity? We know we need to have a connection with humans, not dominance or subjugation but connecting as humans on a level of equality. The pit is waiting for us; it will never disappear, so it belies us to not fall in or we lose everything that matters.