Tall, head-high stalks of grass waving in the wind, slowly, almost menacingly. There’s a sense of danger here.
That’s because it’s lurking in the tall grasses, waiting for you.
Onibaba, translated as Demon Woman, is the first Japanese horror film to make the list of 101 Horror Movies.
Based on a Buddhist parable, the story tells of an old woman, and her daughter-in-law, Hoy, during a civil war. They reside in a huge field of grass in a tiny hut, and prey on wounded samurai who stumble into their little world. They kill them, strip them of their armor, swords and valuables, to sell to Ushi in exchange for food, and toss them into a dark hole in the center of the field.
Into this field, and adjacent waterway, stumbles Hachi, a former neighbor, who had gone off to fight in the wars with Hoy’s husband, who according to Hachi, died during a battle.
The three of them form an interesting triangle, as Hoy and Hachi become more and more attracted to one another, much to her mother-in-laws dismay and growing hatred.
As the two young lovers meet in the late and dark of the night, the mother-in-law becomes increasingly irritable and angry towards her daughter-in-law. She tries in turns to warn the younger woman off with tales of hells for sinners, especially those of lust, and to seduce Hachi herself.
Finally, one night, when she has been left alone, a wounded samurai stumbles into the mother-in-law’s home, his face hidden by a demonic mask. (Rumor has it, that it inspired part of the make-up seen of the demon face in The Exorcist – Can’t wait to revisit that!)
He demands that she show him the way out of the grass and point to Kyoto.
She leads him through the dark, and leaps over the threatening wound in the earth, that is the hole. The samurai tumbles.
Scheming now, the mother-in-law descends into the hole, to recover the mask from the samurai’s scarred face. She then pretends to visit Ushi at night, claiming it’s cooler traveling, and then waits in the long grass for Hoy to visit Hachi.
As she draws near, the mother-in-law would appear, wearing the mask to terrify the young woman.
She repeats this, demonic activity over and over, trying to separate the two lovers, until she is unable to remove the mask. Revealing what she has done to Hoy, she begs for the woman’s help, and Hoy brutally beats at the mask, after she realizes how much pain it is causing the old woman, finally revealing a scarred, equally demonic face beneath it.
Sometimes the simple stories are the best, and there are reasons they endure. There are a number of interesting themes and ideas running throughout the entire film, and on the whole I tend to enjoy Japanese horror films, their imagery can tend to be a little unnerving and get under your skin. The mask certainly did it in this film!