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Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba and the Horrible Dangers of Policing Female Desire

Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 historical horror Onibaba explores the themes of death and sexuality, Eros and Thanatos, across the apocalyptic wasteland of medieval Japan.

Passed away on May 29 in 2012 at age 100, the prolific Japanese director wrote and directed this black and white period drama set in a landscape intriguing and disturbing at once.

As 14th-century Japan is torn by civil war, a widow (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) kill Samurai deserters and soldiers to steal their possessions. After stripping the men of their most precious belongings, they throw the bodies in a hole concealed by the blade-like grass.

When their neighbor Hachi (Kei Satō) returns, bringing news that the women’s son/husband has been killed, this creates friction between the two unnamed protagonists. Specifically, the younger woman wakes up to the realization she is now a widow and her body has long craved human and sexual contact. Her desire for Hachi prompts the older woman to try and restrain this blooming sexuality. After robbing a samurai, she starts wearing his mask — whose ghoulish features are inspired by those of Noh theatre’s masks — and poses as a demon to put her younger friend off her new relationship.

All images (including header) courtesy of  Kindai Eiga Kyokai

Shindo adapted this story from a Shin Buddhist parable intended as a way to attract women to the temple. In the story, a woman is furious with her daughter-in-law who neglects household chores to go pray. She then wears a mask and tries to scare the younger woman off the temple, only to attract Buddha’s punishment upon herself. When she realizes she can’t get the mask off, she begs him to help her. She then manages to remove the mask but, as she takes it off, the flesh of her face comes off as well.

That is the same punishment the older woman is subjected to in Onibaba. To her dismay, she discovers the mask is stuck to her face. When she asks her daughter-in-law for help, no attempt is successful until the older woman pulls so hard she strips the flesh away with the mask.

Despite the scorched flesh is a terrifying sight, Onibaba’s horror proceeds mostly from its unsettling environment and the score by Hikaru Hayashi, blending traditional Taiko drumming and jazz and resulting in eerie and solemn turns. The tall susuki grass shields the characters and their squalid huts from sunlight, forcing them in a perpetually bleak time of day where it’s hard to tell dusk from dawn.

This feeling of uneasiness is amplified by the coarse quality of the black and white, which makes being able to see what lies ahead in the fields as difficult for the audience as it is for the protagonists. The never-ending darkness is what the two scavengers rely on to trick the soldiers and let them fall into the hole in the ground, acting as a monstrous vaginal symbol devouring the men that get too close.

But the 1964 film is more than an effective horror that has you on the edge of your seat. Onibaba is a sensuous movie providing an insight into the disruptive energy of female bodies and sexuality. Interestingly, it tries to operate outside of the male gaze by emphasizing its female protagonist’s agency.

Historically, abstinence has been a burden placed on the shoulders of women. They were told not to engage in sexual relationships and be the sole custodians of their virtue until marriage, while keeping one’s virginity hasn’t necessarily taken on the same dutiful connotation when applied to men. In Onibaba, set in Medieval Japan, the younger woman is told off for pursuing a sexual relationship she fully consents to, while Hachi’s insisting behavior is regarded as acceptable, when not seen as intrinsic to masculinity.

A misconception assumes women have a lower sex drive than men. In pop culture, the headache trope, often perceived simply as a ‘white lie’ one tells to avoid having intercourse but conceals deeper miscommunication issues in the relationship, is a trick only ever played by women. Men, on the other hand, are supposed to want to engage in sexual activities at all times and are shamed if their sex drive doesn’t match societal expectations of what virility should be.

Only recently, the open portrayal of vibrant, healthy, and diverse sexuality in women has become not just tolerable, but desirable and common in visual storytelling. This is an instance where pop culture was the result of a more honest conversation around female sexuality offscreen and was also able to push the debate further.

That is why it’s remarkable a 1960s movie like Onibaba doesn’t just let female passion take center stage, but also rewards the characters who act on their desire while punishing the one who tries to police that sexuality. The film was released in 1964, four years before the sexual and feminist revolution that will be responsible for the inclusion of women in the public discourse around sexuality and reproductive rights.

The popularisation of the so-called pink films — Japanese smaller, independent productions featuring nudity — in the 1960s might have played a part in Shindo’s exploration of sexuality. Onibaba presents nude scenes of all characters and luscious sex scenes between Hachi and the younger woman, but it’s never purely voyeuristic.

All images (including header) courtesy of  Kindai Eiga Kyokai

Particularly, the director’s approach included a dive into both female characters’ desire, even that pertaining to the woman considered to be past her prime (albeit Nobuko Otowa, who will marry Shindo in 1977, was 39 at the time of filming).

As she tries to divert Hachi’s interest from her daughter-in-law, the woman offers herself to him, making an explicit sexual proposition that he turns down mockingly. However, her repeated attempts to prevent the younger woman from having sex with Hachi, although reproachful, aren’t framed in a jealousy dynamic pitting women against each other. Nonetheless, the other two characters’ sexual relationship unexpectedly awakens her own, long-neglected desire. This is portrayed in the scene where the actress rubs herself against a tree mimicking a sexual encounter, a powerful expression of both loneliness and an unleashed sexuality at the same time.

The operation Shindo puts in place with Onbaba is fascinating. By removing the religious element, he repositions the original story to turn the plot into a cautionary tale about the dangers of policing female sexual desire. The older woman’s disfigurement can be seen as a punishment not enforced by god-like figures, but one she brings upon herself by failing to identify physical pleasure as something natural, something that women should be able to benefit from. Her tragic fate is a consequence of sticking to those outdated societal norms, celebrating chastity and modesty over a healthy sexual enjoyment. She, a widow who has never remarried, ultimately falls victim to that value system too.

Onibaba thus becomes a secular — and political, as most gender issues are — tale of sexual empowerment and offers a commentary on the way society has policed women’s sexuality throughout the centuries and still does to this day.

You can watch Onibaba as part of the Criterion Collection Channel. You can get a free fourteen day trial. Check it out.