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Onibaba (鬼婆, 1964) is a Japanese horror film directed by Kaneto Shindo. Set during the aftermath of a fourteenth century civil war near Kyoto, the story focuses on two (nameless) women who kill soldiers for their weapons and gear. They live in a hut surrounded by a seemingly boundless and inescapable sea of tall grass. There’s a deep hole in there too, which is where they drop their stripped victims before trading the booty for millet and the occasional fowl.

When the slovenly Hachi comes back from the war, he’s without Kishi. Kishi was the young woman’s husband and old woman’s son, but he was killed trying to steal food from a bunch of fed-up farmers. Hachi takes a liking to the young woman, and the old woman tries to put a stop to the grimy affaire de coeur that ensues between this bumpkin pair. She fears that if she can’t end it, then the hard-working young girl will take off for good, leaving her to fend for herself and to likely starve. Solution... Wear a devil mask, hide out in the grass at night, and scare the bejeezus out of the girl whenever she slinks off to lay Hachi. And this works fine till the old woman finds herself out in the pouring rain one night and the mask becomes ruinously affixed to her face.

This is a horror film, but not because anything in it is actually supernatural. We always know it’s the baba pretending to be the oni, that it’s not a real devil. What's unsettling is the photography, especially the shots of the never-ending grass they live in, and the hole, which for the first half of the film appears to be bottomless (unfortunately the narrative didn’t allow for it to be that way). Also the poverty and ignorance of the characters is disturbing and a horror in itself. All in all, I thought it was a good film, and memorable, but not one of the Japanese greats of the genre.


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