This is how people are unknowingly their own horror stories.
Onibaba starts ominous, we look into the deep empty hole, wondering what dark entity exists far beneath the surface. The title smash cuts onto the screen; as though to create an association between Onibaba, ‘Devil Woman’, and the hole. And that’s the closest Onibaba gets to the horror genre; mostly everything else is just drama, perhaps the most thickly veiled sinister drama of all time, ripe with a unique, difficult dilemma and a harsh, stark character study. I discovered that when I grappled with the central plot I realised that the plot concerning the hole (and the samurai) is a reflection of their struggles; the whole story about the old lady betraying her daughter in law in order to live is not just a heart-twisting tale of tragedy and internal conflict as she fights to survive, it’s a fable about the greed of a woman so determined to live that she will force her closest companion (and only dependable source of help) to mercilessly kill as many passing strangers as it takes to keep going; by keeping her daughter in law from moving on, she’s condemning her to a life of sin, murder and a soulless existence. It goes without saying that the old woman is eventually punished.
From the start, I thought they we’re feeding a monster inside the hole; I wasn’t wrong, but not in the way I expected. Instead of feeding the literal, the film feeds on the interpretive: the monster being fed is the woman’s greediness to survive. I loved how her power dynamic changed as she played each hand throughout the whole movie; my focus was mainly drawn to her make-up and appearance. Her desperate need to eat feels like her version of the hole: constantly consuming; and like the hole’s infinite blackness, the make-up on her eyes creates an identical symbol of emptiness. When she puts on the mask, the night overwhelms her, darkness engulfs her as the light highlights her mask: the symbol of fear (and of the protection that offers final punishment). This attention to storytelling excites me, the layers of meaning given in every aspect of the story offers something so truthful to the characters that in their weakest moments they remain honest and true to the audience. Onibaba changes the way light works in movies; instead of light being a symbol of safety, it becomes a symbol of weakness, an expression of the true face of horror: that horror is fear to itself.
I could go on forever about how intricately every detail is painted in tightly wrapped layers, but I’d rather you go see it for yourself. Trust me; it’s gorgeous in every regard.