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“People are both the devil and God,” Japanese writer/director Kaneto Shindo—whose 1964 erotic-horror classic Onibaba you now hold in your hands—told an interviewer just a year or so ago, “and are truly mysterious.”
He is surely in a position to know. With a resume consisting of two hundred-plus screenwriting credits over the last sixty years, Shindo’s career suggests a kind of X-ray of postwar Japanese cinema’s dizzying aesthetic highs and delirious pulp-action lows. Set aside for a moment the more than forty features Shindo has directed from his own screenplays (not an easy task given his prodigiousness and longevity; his latest film, 2003’s Owl, was completed the year he celebrated his ninety-first birthday) and already you’re talking about a man well accustomed to working in mysterious ways. Was the hand that penned Kenji Mizoguchi’s My Love Has Been Burning in 1949—the culmination of Shindo’s relationship with the director to whom he first apprenticed in the late 1930s—any more touched by divinity than the hand that spilled the devil’s inkwell to scribble Toho Studios’ late ’70s disaster epic, Deathquake? A long-term collaborator with proto-New Wave super-satirist Yasuzo Masumura, and co-creator of both Seijun Suzuki’s Elegy to Violence (1966) and Kinji Fukasaku’s Under the Fluttering Military Flag (1972)—the most politically coruscating films of either of those directors’ careers—Shindo is also responsible for 1966’s Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman’s Pilgrimage, the little-remembered fourteenth installment in the long-running chronicles of Japan’s favorite blind masseur-turned-superswordsman.
Shindo, a contemporary of Akira Kurosawa, wrote his earliest scripts for prewar masters like Yasujiro Shimizu. And the highly successful independent production company he established in 1950, Kindai Eiga Kyokai, preceded similar efforts by Japanese New Wave figureheads Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura by more than a decade. Yet he’s always managed to seem both slightly ahead of his time and somehow slightly behind it. Among his earliest films as a director, Shindo—an outspoken leftist throughout his career—is mainly remembered for 1952’s Children of Hiroshima, a kind of travelogue through the devastation of postwar Hiroshima, commissioned by the Japanese Teachers Union which, though a popular success, brought accusations that the filmmaker had undercut the film’s overt political message with sentimentalism. A decade later, Shindo stepped onto the world cinema stage when he won a prize at the Moscow Film Festival for The Naked Island (1961), a dialogue-free quasi-documentary about the punishing lives of a hard-working family in a remote corner of the Inland Sea who spend most of their time hauling water to nourish the unquenchable thirst of the land that barely sustains their crops. What unites these two otherwise rather disparate films is the director’s focus on his characters’ determination to survive at all costs. This focus would reach its apotheosis in Onibaba, a film whose guiding passion is hunger, and whose central image, a gaping black hole in the earth, is that of an all-consuming maw.
Released in Japan in 1964, the same year as Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes (a film to which it bears a number of striking resemblances), Onibaba is based on a Buddhist parable meant to encourage women’s attendance at religious convocations. But in Shindo’s hands the parable is gleefully deformed into a cautionary tale about sexual jealousy and unrequited passion, reaffirming his propensity for superimposing the modern and the ancient, not to mention God and the devil. Not only was Onibaba the director’s first period film, set in the sixteenth century during a time of constant war and ceaseless famine, it was also his first (of several to come) to place an overt focus—in shot after shot of the topless torsos of its central characters—on the ways that sexual desire, while essential to human survival, can also have cataclysmic consequences. Deep in an endless field of suggestively swaying, seven-foot-high susuki grass, a middle-aged woman (Nobuko Otowa, star of Shindo’s first film, as well as his eventual wife and recurrent muse)—her fright-wig black hair sprayed to one side with an inexplicably shock-white streak—and her feral daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) spend their days lying in wait for errant samurai to happen near their lair. Fleeing the wars raging well beyond this forest of undulating fronds, the exhausted samurai who enter the susuki succumb to the apparent sanctuary of the grasses, only to be set upon by the women, who slay them as they rest.
With the relentlessness of dung beetles (indeed, the wild-eyed Yoshimura had costarred in Shohei Imamura’s The Insect Woman only the year before), the women strip the victims of their armor and dump their bodies in an apparently bottomless hole that punctuates the pubic flora like some vulvic gateway to hell. The armor traded to a local black-marketer (who lives in a hellish, Sternbergian hole of his own) for sacks of millet, the women gorge themselves on their spoils, then fall panting, sweat-drenched, and in various states of sated dishabille on the bed they share in a tiny hut. Apart from their reliance on one another for survival, the women’s bond is a tenuous one: together, they await the return from war of the man who is son to one and husband to the other. And when Hachi (played by the irresistibly leering Kei Sato, versatile star of numerous Oshima classics such as Violence at Noon), a former neighbor and friend of the missing man, returns to report that their son and lover has been slain in the war, the bond immediately starts to fray. Hachi begins turning his own famished focus on the newly widowed younger woman and, as lust inevitably draws the younger couple together, the mother-in-law suddenly finds herself faced with a double threat of extinction: “I can’t kill without her!” she beseeches the pitiless Hachi, of the partner-in-murder he’s succeeded in seducing away. When she offers him the pleasures of her own flesh instead, she finds herself as barren as the leafless tree to which she clings during a paroxysm of sexual rejection and hysterical rage.
Spurred on by composer Hikaru Hayashi’s endlessly exuberant score—a free-for-all of rollicking drum rumbles pierced with occasional scat-screams and laughing-gas blasts of snorting brass—and ornamented with increasingly expressionist references to “terrible mountains of needles” and “souls with human faces who grow four legs” and crawl toward sinners’ hell, Onibaba’s nightmarish final act brings Eros into direct confrontation with Thanatos. As twist-of-fate face-offs go, the climax Shindo conjures up is a night-of-the-shrieking-souls showdown composed in couplets of pure pulp poetry, with desire pitted against terror and beauty eaten alive by repulsion, all of it capped by a ferocious final chortle into the void. What linger long after the film is finished, however, are the sorts of God-or-the-devil questions that Shindo peppers throughout; questions that he has posed across his career and to this very day. Why is it, after all, that long before the mother-in-law dons the demon mask, her face is already a kabuki-lurid visage, complete with bat’s-wing eyebrows and lips a blighted curl? And are we meant to see that gaping aperture in the earth as a figuration of sexual desire as an endlessly sucking vortex? Or as a politicized potshot at the pitfalls of consumer capitalism feverishly run amok? Over a land where frost falls in summer, and a horse is said to have given birth to a calf, a black sun rises, refusing to illuminate those mysteries best left unknown. Onibaba is just such a sun—bright and black and burning forever: truly mysterious indeed.
Chuck Stephens is a contributing editor to Film Comment. His work appears in the pages of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Village Voice, and Cinema Scope. He lives in Bangkok.