Onibaba (1964)

The film begins with a hole, a deep, dark hole, that has existed (so we are told) forever. We then see to two soldiers, apparently fleeing a battle. The soldiers are killed by two women, who steal their armour and sell it on to a trader in stolen goods. These two women are our protagonists, surviving by selling stolen armour, fishing, and waiting for their son and husband to return from the war. When their neighbour, a man named Hachi, returns from the war, without her son, the mother is unhappy, believing him to be a coward. The young girl begins an affair with Hachi, visiting him each night in secret. Her mother-in-law, worried about losing the girl as well as her son attempts to end this relationship.

The story is told in quite a minimalist way, similar to a play, with a small cast of characters and each scene teaching us something about them, or advancing the plot in some way. I also found it very similar, in some regards, to a fairy-story, especially so in later scenes when there seems to be a fantastical element introduced. The film does not shy away from sex and violence, being the primary drivers of the plot, and there is also a lot of discussion about hell and sin that was interesting to see. The music at the beginning of the film I felt was a little out of place, with almost a jazz soundtrack playing, but it seems to get better as the film progresses. The acting from the leads was good, and there were some moments of incredible emotion. The cinematography was excellent, and the director really utilises the environment, swaying grasses, wet paddy fields, caves and rivers to emphasise what is going on, or how you should be feeling. There is a sense of desolation of the two women, living alone among a vast field of tall grass that perfectly captures without words their feelings of being left behind by the men who have gone to fight the war. This is further emphasised by the hole that is shown at the beginning of the film (a pit into which the women throw the bodies of soldiers they have killed). This is a fantastic metaphor for death, evil, and perhaps even a certain emptiness at the heart of humanity. We see the hole at the beginning, throughout, and in the final scene. I feel that using these more abstract techniques the film raises itself above others in the genre.

I found that the message of the film, and its take on sex, was surprisingly refreshing, as we see at the end of the film which offers a very different conclusion than you might expect. This is far from being a horror film in the modern sense, more of a psychological thriller, with the true ‘horror’ being in the behaviour of the characters. It offers a unique take on lust, sex, and war, and the feelings of loss and abandonment by those left behind in wartime. I would highly recommend this film, as it is a great example of somebody with a clear vision bringing it almost perfectly to the screen.

The Naked Island (1960)

 

The film tells the story of a family who live on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. The parents of two young boys must struggle to keep their crops watered. They travel to the mainland on a small boat to collect water and transport it back to the island, constantly returning to refill their buckets. We see that the soil on the island soaks up the water almost instantly and the dry summer makes this an interminable and unenviable task as they carry their heavy loads up the hill to their fields. This Sisyphean task comes to represent a more general fight for survival.

Director Kaneto Shindo creates a startlingly realistic portrait of rural farm life. At times the film feels more like a documentary as we watch the family carry out their duties. Most of the tension in the film comes from the constant struggle of the family to survive, a struggle that is brought into sharp relief in the final portion of the film when the elder son falls ill. The film moves at a relaxed pace and there is no dialogue or plot to speak of. The seasons change and the family endure. Their island seems at once to be both a paradise and a sort of purgatory where they must continually fight the parched earth to get anything to grow. It can be a chore to watch at times, with little recognizable drama, but in the end it is effective in portraying the simple lives of these people. There are a number of beautiful shots and the score manages to evoke a sense of tranquillity while at the same time foreshadowing the terrible events of the films conclusion.

“The Naked Island” is a film that sets out with a clear purpose to show the hardships encountered by those working the land. The island setting is perfect as it shows both the isolation of the family and lends a sense of danger as they are cut off from the rest of the world. The constant need for water comes to symbolise humanities wider struggle for survival against a hostile planet. Also interesting to note is that much of the film seems to portray events from the mother’s perspective. We can see the burden of her water buckets as a metaphor for the stresses placed on her as a woman, a wife and a mother. Overall, it is a great example of film-making from the era. There are many ways to analyse the story and various scenes, but it is also a fantastic window on the past.

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

woman in the dunes

Woman in the Dunes, based on the novel of the same title by Kobo Abe, is a peculiar tale, part mystery, part social commentary. The film begins with an entomologist searching for insects in a vast sandy terrain beside the sea. After wandering for some time collecting specimens he is approached by a group of men who ask him if he has somewhere to stay that night. They inform him that their village is poor but that there is a shack nearby where he might find shelter. They lead him to a rickety house in a large hole in the dunes that he descends to via rope ladder. In the hut at the bottom of the pit there is a woman with whom he shares a pleasant enough evening meal. By night the woman has to haul sand away from the house, which is then winched up by the men above, to prevent it being buried beneath the ever tumbling sandfall from above. She makes a comment to the man that she doesn’t expect him to work “on the first night”. The man soon discovers that their offer of shelter was a ruse and he has been trapped down in this pit with no hope of return to the world above. The men take away the rope ladder at night, leaving both him and the woman captive. As the days go by, the man’s relationship with the woman deepens and develops as he plots his escape.

From the opening scenes it is clear that director Hiroshi Teshigahara has a clear and unique vision. He uses the artform to its utmost to create a compelling work. The shots of dunes in the opening perfectly captures the sense of somebody who is emotionally lost without ever having to explain this to us. Extreme close-ups of insects show the entemologist’s obsession with seemingly insignificant minutia that perhaps lead him into the deception, as he is unable to see what is going on around him. Also worth mentioning are the passionate scenes between him and the woman, that manage a sensuality and eroticism through almost abstract close-ups. This is true throughout with an intensity to much of the film that is seemingly conjured out of very little, instead due to the incredible interplay between unique imagery and an affecting soundscape. The score by Toru Takemitsu, with strained violins and undercurrent of dread, compliments the direction and acting to create a powerful piece of cinema. Both of the main actors, Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida, do a great job with this script. It could easily have been a stage play as the majority of the action simply involves two people in or around a cabin. It is great to see two well drawn characters, expertly acted, develop in unison, each learning from or being inspired by the other.

The films premise is deceptively simple, essentially a man is trapped in a hole with a woman, but through this the film manages to explore a number of interesting themes. It is a rumination on freedom and enslavement and whether there is much of a difference between them. It can be seen as a gloomy satire on work and society, with the interminable and pointless venture of clearing sand away from the house being a perfect metaphor for life and humanities attempts to delay the inevitable. There is also an emotional relationship between the two leads, an exploration of lust and sexuality, and often difficult questions raised regarding this. Much like shifting sands the film can be interpreted as any number of things depending on what you want to see there. A unique premise that lends itself to several allegorical interpretations. A must watch classic for those who enjoy complex character studies with socio-political overtones.

The Insect Woman (1963)

 

The film tells the story of Tome, a girl born to a poor farming community in 1918. Tome’s upbringing is unconventional and difficult as she finds it hard to break away from the same problems of her parents generation. The story then moves to the second world war which finds Tome working at a factory, having children as she tries to lead a normal life. Post-war Japan sees Tome finding work in the city at a brothel. Tome’s life is packed with incidence as she sees the worst of Japanese society.

The film deals with many difficult issues such as incest and prostitution and we see a shift from rural to urban focus in society, though still with the same sins and desires permeating and driving the characters. The dialogue is well-written and we get an insight into the protagonists life and outlook through her interactions with a variety of characters, from family to colleagues. Fantastic acting and engaging dialogue drive the story on. The music is ominous, reflecting the darkness of the characters lives.

Although made in the sixties the film doesn’t shrink from portraying a dark vision of Japanese life. At its heart it is a film about sin and attempting to escape from it while trying to do your best in a harsh world. The strong female protagonist battles on despite being seemingly punished for her own and others indiscretions.