Food as a Catalyst
by Skyler Tapley
Onibaba (1964) is a dark classic with a twist to a Buddhist ideal and Japanese folklore. The story revolves around an old woman and her daughter-in-law — who remain nameless throughout the movie — trying to survive in a war torn Japan in the Edo period. While food is not a major theme in the movie, it is an underlying presence that creates the catalyst for many of the major events.
The two women survive by killing samurai that stray into their mazelike world of tall reeds. This landscape plays a very important part in the film by evoking the fear of a world that does not have any horizon or any sense to it, it is all an endless rustling of the unknown. This landscape allows for the women to kill samurai easily by tricking them, sneaking up on them, or leading them into a dark pit. They do this to take their armor and weapons to sell to Ushi, who in exchange gives them millet, sake, and meat. This is the only way the two women survive in this world. Their life begins to get more complicated when Hachi returns. He is a neighbor of theirs’ that went off to the war with Kichi, the son and husband of the two women. When they learn that Kichi has been killed it creates a rift between them.
Hachi creates a lustful dynamic between the three of them. This lustfulness that is created represents appetites of the characters. Similar to how they crave food and focus their current lifestyle on finding food, they have natural cravings for this lust as well. The movie focuses on these human appetites. Kichi’s wife begins to lust for Hachi, while her mother-in-law tries to stop her. The mother-in-law herself is overcome with lust and appetite for sinful desires though and tries to get Hachi to sleep with her. When he declines, she begins telling her daughter-in-law stories of punishment and hell for these sinful actions.
As the daughter-in-law starts to believe these stories of demons, a samurai with a demon mask shows up and makes the old woman escort him out of the reeds. She complies, before tricking him into falling down the dark pit. He had claimed to be the most handsome man in Kyoto, and she wanted to see his face, so she climbed down the pit and removed his mask, with some struggle. It is revealed that his face has scars on it and is not as handsome as he had claimed. This is an important moment because it is another instance of the old woman’s hypocrisy. She claims that being sinful and lustful is bad, but she has those same feelings, coupled with the jealousy that she has of her daughter-in-law.
She puts the mask on and scares her daughter in law into going back instead of seeing Hachi for two nights straight. On the third night there is a torrential downpour and the mask ends up getting stuck. Once her daughter-in-law realizes it is her and agrees to pull the mask off she ends up having to smash the mask on her face before it finally breaks apart and can be removed. Upon removing the mask, it is revealed that the old woman has become disfigured much worse than the man who wore it before her. The daughter-in-law is terrified and runs away as the movie ends with the old disfigured woman chasing her telling her she is human.
While this movie has much stronger themes, food is still a significant catalyst and human appetite. Without food being part of the film most of the actions in the film would not have existed. The only reason the women were killing the samurai was to get items to trade for food. If it was not for this trade flow that they had with Ushi, the old woman would not have been able to pose as the demon — since she always claimed to go to Ushi’s when the younger woman would try to go to see Hachi and run into the demon. Without these aspects of food in the film they would not have occurred. Even at the end of the film Hachi is killed by a stranger eating in his hut.
The majority of the most important moments of the film are followed or preceded by eating. They eat messily after killing the samurai at the start of the film. They are eating when Hachi returns. The scene right before the climax with the old woman being stuck in the mask is preceded by the random man eating and killing Hachi. The film has a powerful component of food as a catalyst. In this world food is always in the back of everyone’s mind. Without the underlying feeling of food as a scarce and valuable resource, the most important events would not have occurred in the movie.
Onibaba. Dir. Kaneto Shindo. Toho, 1964.