31 DAYS OF HORROR #28: Martin Gentles on ONIBABA (1964)

Spoilers

Martin Gentles – producer of Netflix horror sensation His House – talks about Kaneto Shindô erotic 1964 folk horror, and the impact it’s had on his own career…

When I was first approached to write a piece about my favourite horror film, I found it near impossible to decide which one to pick. There are just too many: Alien is a masterpiece that’s a filmmaking tour de force as well as one of the greatest horror films ever made (it’s also far superior to Aliens, but I will fight that fight another day); The Thing is a film that continued to scare me well in to adulthood, no matter how many times I’d watched it; and that moment in Ringu when Sadako emerged from the television is probably one of the best horror beats ever committed to film. I couldn’t decide which one is my favourite horror film. I thought about it and I thought about it… and then, it came to me. A film I’ve watched over and over again. A film with few equals in cinema generally, let alone the horror genre. A film, the likes of which I would love to make… the Japanese historical horror, Onibaba.

Written and directed by Kaneto Shindô, it starred his real-life wife Nobuku Otowa, alongside Jitsuko Yoshimura and Kei Satô, and was produced and distributed by the famed Toho Company, a production partner of Akira Kurosawa’s. Set in fourteenth century Japan, it focuses on two women: one mysteriously credited as simply “Younger Woman” and the other, equally mysteriously, “Older Woman”. These two main characters are unnamed as an illustration of the singular bond and source of identity that the two share: an absent man. As such, stripping the women of any sense autonomy or self identity is pertinent, as the world in which they live is a bleak, harsh nightmare.

A war between rival emperors has ripped the country apart. Many farmers have fled to the mountains to escape, as able bodied men are kidnapped and forced to fight for their feudal masters. The women have no one else they can depend on, except each other. The only means of survival available to them is to prey upon deserting warriors, killing them for their armour and swords and exchanging these for food from a merchant who hides in the mountains. It’s a desperate plight but there is balance to their world… that is until the return of Hachi (Satô), a former neighbour who was kidnapped for military service along with the Older Woman’s son and the Younger Woman’s husband, Kichi.

Hachi’s return heralds a violent change to the lives of the two women when he reports that Kichi is dead, murdered by farmers while he and Hachi were stealing their food. Now Hachi has returned, he sees an opportunity to take Kichi’s wife, the Younger Woman, for himself. This development strikes fear in the Older Woman. She believes she needs the Younger Woman in order to kill soldiers for food and survive. If Hachi lures the Younger Woman away, she fears she too will become a casualty of war. So the Older Women begins to employ manipulative tactics to try and keep the Younger Woman away from Hachi: she bargains with Hachi, even offering to pleasure him herself; she lies to the Younger Woman, telling her that Kichi might still be alive; and when her tactics don’t succeed, she makes up stories about the places in hell reserved for lascivious and sexually free people. When the Older Woman is discovered by a lost samurai wearing a hannya (demon) mask, the Older Woman kills him and steals his robes and mask, and pretends to be a demon herself seeking to punish sinful people, successfully terrifying the Younger Woman into staying away from Hachi… for a time.

There’s so much to write about this wonderful, terrifying film. The black and white cinematography is a beautiful chiaroscuro that renders images abstract and otherworldly. The score is a bizarre combination of taiko drumming and post-bop jazz that somehow works, to create an atmosphere of constant tension and erotic charge. The performances are equally out of this world. The three leads bring an almost animalistic physicality, to underscore the desperation of the characters and the depths they all plumb in order to survive.

But these are just the superficial pleasures. Onibaba‘s real joys are in the exploration of its themes. The film’s allegories are writ large on screen, reading like a treatise on older generations, and how they seek to manipulate and control the young for its own ends. It doesn’t take a genius to see how this can be seen today with the fallout from the 2008 crash, the economic impact of Covid, and of course Brexit. The film’s resonance also works in large part due to its use of superstition, and reads like an apocryphal tale on the teleology of organised religion: how it can be a social tool for control over youthful expressions that challenge the old orders.

Onibaba is one of the great films, in my humble opinion. It is not only terrifying in its portrayal of the sometimes necessary, sometimes gratuitous cruelty of humanity when it is trapped in survival mode – it also stands as one the most erotically charged movies ever made. Simple imagery, such as a longing look into fields of tall, swamp grass, fizz with an energy few other films accomplished at that time, or since.

This is then, without doubt, my favourite horror film. I’m not sure why it wasn’t apparent the moment I  asked myself the question, but eventually it was clear to me: I’ve been trying to make Onibaba my whole filmmaking life: its influences have permeated the horror scripts I’ve developed, and its ambition and beauty has been an aspiration I’ve sought to realise in my films. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the saying goes, and it is my sincerest hope that I will flatter Onibaba, my favourite horror, soon.

Martin Gentles

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