Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Zen & Its Opposite: Onibaba

Forget the Ghostface from the Scream films. It simply cannot compete with the creepiest movie mask ever, as seen Kaneto Shindō’s first great pseudo-horror film. Based on a Buddhist fable, Shindō’s atmospheric Onibaba (trailer here) screens this Friday as the next fitting selection of the Japan Society’s ongoing Zen & Its Opposite film series, which highlights the intersection of Zen Buddhism and the dark side of humanity.

Alas, poor Kichi. We never meet the poor farmer pressed into military service in Sixteenth Century feudal Japan. He left behind his unnamed mother and wife, who prey on wayward samurai, selling their armor and weapons to survive. Evidently, he was recently killed in a futile military campaign, according to Hachi, a fellow peasant shanghaied alongside Kichi. However, his mother has her doubts about the circumstances of his death and the messenger bearing the news.

Kichi’s mother also does not like the way Hachi leers at her daughter-in-law. Her concerns are justified. Before long, Kichi’s presumed widow is regularly meeting Hachi for amorous assignations. Fearing she will be unable to survive without the younger woman, the mother-in-law begins a campaign of desperate manipulation. Then one dark and stormy night, while the none-too-secret lovers are together, an imposing samurai appears, demanding the older woman show him the way out of susuki grass. He happens to be wearing an unsettling mask suggesting an ancient devil-clown over what he assures the woman are unbearably handsome features. At first, she wants to see his beauteous features for herself and then gets certain ideas for re-establishing control of her domestic situation.

In Onibaba, nature is dark and foreboding rather than bright and cheerful. A perfect selection for the Opposite series, it also presents a fire-and-brimstone side of Buddhism in the older woman’s guilt trips completely at odds with the New Agey presentations of its reincarnation precepts common in western popular culture. She exhorts her daughter-in-law in no uncertain terms, sin now and pay for eternity.

Though there is no supernatural monster in Onibaba per se, Shindō still conveys the sense that some malevolent cosmic force is definitely at work. Indeed, there is great ambiguity about the nature of the mask. Better described as a sinister psychological thriller rather than an outright scary movie, it artfully instills a consistent sensation of foreboding. Definitely for adult sensibilities, Onibaba also frequently features its lead actresses topless (because of the heat, you see). It notches up a respectable body count too.

While Ozu often explored father-daughter relationships, Shindō seemed to be intrigued by the mother-daughter-in-law dynamic, which he revisited a few years later with Kuroneko. The relations between the women of Onibaba are particularly complex, fraught with considerable resentment as well as years of shared history. Nobuko Otowa makes one scary mother-in-law, yet she is also quite human and fragile. Disarmingly innocent one moment than recklessly hedonistic the next, Jitsuko Yoshimura brings manifold dimensions to the sort of dutiful daughter-in-law as well.

Though titled Zen and Its Opposites, this series could have easily been called something like “all-time great Japanese films not directed by Kurosawa and Ozu” instead. Onibaba is no exception. While it might have been genre programmer in its day, it is a legitimate masterwork from Shindō. Highly recommended, it screens this Friday (11/12) on the big screen at the Japan Society.