A submission from guest contributor Herbie Cuffe.
Recommended Viewing Situation:
Crouching down in the susuki grass, outside of the abandoned Noh theatre, preying for your existence to make sense.
Running Time: 103 minutes.
Format: 35mm (Black and White)
Director: Kaneto Shindo
Writer: Kaneto Shindo
Cinematographer: Kiyomi Kuroda
The past may well be a foreign country, but this ghostly historical drama from Kaneto Shindo suggests that they might not do things too differently there. Adapted (and secularized) from a Buddhist parable, Shindo’s film brilliantly exploits modern anxieties about war, sex and godlessness in 14th century Japan. Watching it is like catching a glimpse of Freud’s couch in a traditional ‘sansuiga’.
Two women (Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura) are left to fend for themselves amongst the fields of susuki grass when the eldest’s son, Kichi, who is also the husband to the youngest, is recruited by force to fight on the side of rebels against Japanese imperial forces. A louche and inelegant neighbour, Hachi (Kei Satô), returns from said civil war with grim news and lascivious desires which drive the two women apart, exposing and oxygenating the dysfunction and jealousy that broils between them. The narrative is driven by the lives of characters not so much torn apart through war but drained of any significance or decency by it. In a sense, these two women are survivors but also the war’s biggest victims, having to live with the day to day killing, stealing and selling for food, far away from the honour that typically accompanies period tales of war and resistance. This lays the table for a dark and twisted fable; Hachi’s arrival triggers a whirlwind of jealousy, deceit and superstition.
The film is shot in grainy, high-contrast monochrome which, particularly for the interior sequences along with the angular lighting, makes for some very evocative (and erotic…erocative?) scenes. Faces and features often become patches of blinding skin-tone surrounded and hugged by pitch-black, like a reverse Rorschach test. As for the exterior scenes, the long grass adds an imposing menace to the drama. I wonder whether Ben Wheatley and Laurie Rose watched Onibaba before deciding how to shoot A Field In England (2013). Certain incidents involving a pit also call to mind the denouement of another Japanese chiller, Ringu/Ring (1998), though Onibaba is less of a straight horror than Hideo Nakata’s film. What lingers after the film and its world-jazz score (by Hikaru Hayashi and Tetsuya Ōhashi) have ceased is its sense of pitiless abandonment. This story really feels like it plays out in the middle of nowhere, both geographically and morally. It’s another country, indeed.