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When noble samurai fight for the power over the land, the humble just try to survive - by ALL MEANS!
on 6 May 2014
I liked this 1964 ground-breaking drama about two women trying to survive in the middle of merciless Nanbokucho Wars which devastated Japan during most of XIV century. Even if towards the very end there were some little things I enjoyed less, still, it is definitely an important, major film, a must for all amateurs of good cinema. Below, more of my impressions, with some limited SPOILERS.
Even if it is not absolutely necessary to enjoy this film, I believe that knowing a little bit about the Nanbokucho Wars and especially their quite consequent importance in Japanese national conscience through centuries helps to understand better this film - and also how much courage needed the director to make "Onibaba"...
1. The Nanbokucho Wars (1331-1392)
In XII century Emperors of Japan lost the real power, which was seized by their military commanders who were in the same time leaders of great families of noble land owners - and could count on the support of professional warriors (the samurai) who were their direct vassals. Simplifying the things a little, the XIV century Nanbokucho Wars were a long confrontation between the partisans of restoration of power of the Emperor and a coalition of noble samurai clans who were afraid of losing their power and wealth.
The first fraction, named the Southern Court, was led by the Emperor Go-Daigo and his successors - the other, named the Northern Court was headed by the Ashikaga family, whose leaders claimed from 1338 the title of shogun. Nanbokucho Wars means precisely "wars of Northern and Southern Courts". Ultimately the Ashikaga shoguns prevailed and Emperors became again powerless figureheads - until Meiji restoration in 1868.
With Meiji restoration, the military and political leaders of Southern Court like Kusunoki Masashige (1294-1336), Kusunoki Masatsura (1326-1348) and Kitabataki Chikafusa (1293-1354), who until then were officially considered as rebels and traitors, were rehabilitated and soon became objects of official cult.
Kusunoki Masashige, who indeed was a quite exceptional individual, was particularly venerated as an "ideal samurai", brave, clever and especially loyal to the end. From 1868 to 1945 all Japanese children and teenagers were taught about Kusunoki Masashige amazing (and very real) deeds during the Nanbokucho Wars - and about his ultimate sacrifice in service of the Emperor, resulting in his own death. In 1944 he was also officially designed as an example to follow for the "kamikaze" pilots.
2. The film
Considered all of the above, I believe that if in the beginning of the film we are told that this story occurs in the time of Nanbokucho Wars, it is definitely NOT by accident. The director of "Onibaba" wanted to make a film which, amongst other things, would show the other, mostly forgotten face of samurai wars and denounce especially the cruel hardships suffered by the peasants during those frequently very romanticized conflicts. He could have chosen any war or even refuse to identify the conflict - but he went for the one which was always considered in letters and arts as particularly "glamorous". By confronting this noble image of Nanbokucho Wars with the EXTREMELY down to earth approach of things by starving peasants, concerned only by their most basic survival, he obtained certainly a very powerful shock effect.
This film describes mostly the tribulations of two peasant women living in a shack hidden in a large field of reeds on board of a river. In order to stress more the point how little importance the traditional society attached to the fate of poor peasants, the director decided to not even give them names... One of them is in her late 40s, the other one, her daughter-in-law, is an attractive 20-years old girl. The son of the Older Woman (who is also the husband of the Younger Woman) was conscripted to serve as a simple foot soldier and went to war with the lord of the domain.
In absence of the man who was their only provider the two women are quickly reduced to most abject poverty and face starvation. The film shows frankly and brutally the desperate ways in which they fight for their survival... Then, one day, Hachi, a lone foot soldier who used to be their neighbour, returns from the front after deserting, bringing all kind of news - and soon also the seeds of big trouble... I will say no more about the story.
"Onibaba" was definitely a ground-breaking film, not only by its violent attack against traditional view of Japanese history, but also by a particularly daring display of nudity and a naturalistic showing of basic instincts. In this film there are only two forces which drive human beings, namely hunger and lust - nothing else! The need for sex is of course especially strong for younger people and in this film it is shown very skilfully as a physical urge almost impossible to resist. Answering this call of flesh is shown as a liberating, exhilarating experience, symbolically represented by running as fast as possible through the wild reeds... Important precision here - this is definitely NOT a kind of porn, just a naturalistic film which includes some scenes of intimacy.
The ending of the film, which I didn't like much by the way, can be understood probably in many different ways - for some people it will be a warning that living only by most basic instincts results in losing our humanity, for others a statement that when the natural needs and urges of our bodies are repressed, it ultimately releases demons on the world, yet for others that karma simply is a bitch... But of course I cannot be certain if any of those things are what director intended to say and I may have perceived it all wrong. You will have to decide by yourself how to understand the ending.
This is a VERY GOOD and VERY IMPORTANT film. For my personal taste the last ten minutes were a little bit weaker - I found especially the supernatural elements towards the end not really necessary - but I will nevertheless definitely keep this film preciously in my collection for a possible future re-viewing. Enjoy!