Recent films such as Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-On (The Grudge) have brought recognition to Japanese Horror films; both were remade by Hollywood, which is a sideways form of flattery.
Until recently, Japan never had a Horror film industry comparable to the U.S., England, or even Italy, but there is definitely a Japanese Horror legacy. Japanese mythology is filled with the restless dead, demons, and vampires. And in the 1930s, Taro Hirai, popularly known as Edogawa Rampo, produced tales of the grotesque, deviant, and morbid which were wildly popular. Horror found its way into Japanese cinema eventually, although for many years these films did not find distribution outside of the homeland.
Onibaba (1964) was one Japanese movie that broke out into American and European arthouses. Like a contemporary film, Repulsion, Onibaba was intended by its producer to be a financially lucrative shocker, but its power and artistry elevated it into the realm of horror art.
Written and directed by Kaneto Shindo, Onibaba tells the story of a mother and daughter who make their living by selling the weapons and armor of samurai who straggle away from nearby battles. The pair obtain the possessions of the samurai by ambushing them in fields of tall grass and casting their bodies into a pit. A male neighbor returns from the war and begins helping the two with their criminal operation. He quickly seduces the daughter, which sets the mother off in a rage of jealousy that spirals into madness and horror.
Onibaba is drenched in sex and raw emotions, fairly strong stuff for its time, even in Japan. It carries enough raw power to make it compelling viewing, but it also has eerie, dreamlike scenes that raise it above the level of pure exploitation. One of the central images of the movie is a demon mask that the mother finds on a dead samurai. She puts it on to frighten her daughter, chasing her through fields of waving tall grass at night, hoping to keep her away from the bed of her lover. But the movie ends with a Twilight Zone-style twist which demonstrates that the reward for jealousy and spite is pain and horror.
I would strongly recommend Onibaba to anyone who is already a fan of movies like Ringu or Audition. It is a modern movie, like those which have found an audience here in the States recently, but it also touches on the rich traditions of horror in Japanese folklore and myth.Tags: Japanese Horror, Onibaba