Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Onibaba ("Demon Old Woman")
I want to tell you about a movie that frightened and aroused me. Maybe it won’t frighten or arouse you, but that's all right. I love horror movies, and yet the number of horror movies that have gotten under my skin so that I felt like I had to look away I can count on one hand and have enough fingers leftover to crack pistachios. This is the story of one of those movies.
You may ask, so what? Fair enough, my fears are not your fears, which is the problem a writer faces when writing sex or horror, anything visceral. If you're a writer, there's something in this for you, I promise. I'll tell you in a minute.
The movie is "Onibaba", an old black and white Japanese horror flick from 1964. Usually when westerners think of Japanese horror movies they may think of "The Ring" with swampy girls emerging from TV sets, or childhood Saturday afternoons plunked in front of the TV watching a guy in a rubber lizard suit stomp down sky scrapers while Japanese men scatter like roaches or cover their forehead with an arm and cry "No one can save us now! It is the worst it has ever been!"
This ain't one of those.
Onibaba is loosely based on an ancient Buddhist kwaidan, retold in Noh and Kubuki plays. It is the story of two women, one old and one young, and a man and a demon mask. The story is set in medieval Japan just after the epic Battle of Minotogawa. The two women, an old woman and her nubile daughter in law, live a miserable and furtive life in a shanty hut beside a river in a vast field of susuki grass, as tall as corn that seems to swallow up all life and sunlight and hope. They survive by lurking in the tall grass like Black Widow spiders, ambushing wounded samurai who wander into the field to escape pursuit. The women kill the men and rob them of their armor and weapons which they sell to a fence who seems to live in a cave. Hidden in the field is a deep dry well, where they toss the bodies to rot into bones. They live a feral, desperate hand to mouth existence. When food is available they wolf it down and collapse in exhausted satiation and sleep in the hot fetid night air bare breasted.
They are women without names in a world that is upside down. It's still common today for women to be raped and have their things plundered by wandering soldiers, or Ronin, as masterless samurai were known. But here the women do the killing with cunning and cruelty. They expect no kindness and have no mercy in them. Their one hope for the future is the return of the old woman’s son, Kichi, the girl's husband. Kichi was taken away and sent off to fight for the local feudal lord along with another man who stumbles into the hut one night ragged, dirty and famished. His name is Hachi.
They give him a bowl of boiled millet, and like the women, he brainlessly flings himself into it, grunting with urgency, slurping, gobbling down bowl after bowl until he can think straight again. Then he tells them the story of their son's death, not in combat, but at the hands of impoverished, embittered farmers. Then he leaves them to go back to his old hovel to hide out for better days.
The young widow, starved for sex runs through the susuki grass in the moonlight to throw herself on Hachi in a frenzy of raw lust.
What follows after that is unforgettable.
But the apprentice writer has brazenly promised you a few scraps of craft to be learned from this movie, knowing full well every writer on this list has sold more books. All the more reason to hear it from the hungriest one. Here are three scraps I aspire to learn from this movie about story telling:
I won’t tell you what happens at the end of the movie, specifically The Very Bad Thing that happens to the old woman. If I told you, you would yawn. That old thing? I saw that on a Twilight Zone episode. What's scary about that?
Oh - Magic, oh Friends of the Inner Sanctum. Effing story magic in the hands of a master director I'm telling you, and it had me cringing back in my seat and gnawing my thumb.
Because by the time The Very Bad Thing happened I was in love with that old woman. Not only in love, but in lust, I wanted her bad. And when the Very Bad Thing happened I wanted so much for it not to happen to her. And it did. Afterwards, and after seeing the movie many times since I've asked myself how did they do that to me? There was a great deal of nudity in this movie, at a time when I wasn't yet jaded to nudity in the movies. Both women spent a great deal of screen time naked, and yet this was no more "just" a porno movie than Macbeth is "just" a ghost story. This old woman was cruel, and devious and yet I understood her and was lead to understand her fears. Her fear of starvation, because she couldn’t rob the samurai by herself. She couldn’t lose this girl. And the fear of growing old alone and dying alone, discarded and useless. This is the center of a world gone to shit, without law or civilization. A world where a broken leg could condemn you to death by helplessness. It's a world without rules or hope. It’s a life of physical starvation for food and for human touch, and the old woman will resort to anything to cut the young woman off from Hachi and keep her close. The old woman's lush nudity, her abjectness and ferocity for life are incredibly sexy and got under my skin just as it was meant to. It moved in my blood until it reached my heart. This is the secret of true horror fiction. It’s the difference between “Onibaba”, and a Dead Teenager Movie like, say, “Final Destination: The Very Last Chapter Maybe”. In cheesy stories the characters are too often no more than tin ducks in a shooting gallery to be killed. In a well crafted story, their terror is your terror. It's a rock bottom basic element of story telling – you have to care about the characters. You have to want them to be all right.
Onibaba is a movie that drips with sex and nudity. But this is sex such as is rarely seen. It isn’t titillation, or pornography. It’s an agonized scream. Because food and passion are such rarities in their world, the young widow and Hachi make love the way they eat, with animal abandon to exhaustion. Their coupling isn’t the union of bodies or souls, it’s an NFL football tackle resulting in copulation. Grunting, laughing, entangling, screaming and falling to the floor in a frenzy of need. No ostentatious caresses or contortions to get the sexiest camera angle. There is a solid feeling of watching two desperate people and thinking “Yes, this is really how it would be done.” And in the sheer voyeurism of seeing the act there is a feeling of genuine intimacy that joined with empathy makes me fear for how things will turn out for them. This is after all a horror movie.
The old woman’s despairing wail “I’m a human being, not a demon!” speaks for a large portion of humanity. The very best horror movies go by the same principles as other movies. They should make you think. They should make you feel. They should be well crafted. They should be about something. I’m of the opinion, based not on my mediocre output, but on my experience as a reader, that a good sex story is not about sex. A good horror story is not about horror. A good erotic love story uses the act of sex as a means to an end, an incident that makes larger things visible. A good horror story uses The Very Bad Thing as an image of more complex things. A story is about images, a good story springs from compelling images. The image of the story of Onibaba is the world it inhabits, in which women are more aggressive killers, more aggressive lovers then the men around them. A world in which nature seems to suck up all the light and the veneer of civilization is stripped away to reveal something primitive and raw.
And that’s horror.