Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Limbus Limbo: How Low Can You Go

We are greeted by swiftly swaying reeds, a deep pit and silence. No sounds comes out but clearly words are printed across the screen:

Deep & Dark, Its darkness has lasted since the ancient times, Onibaba

Onibaba is a film set in 16th century Japan. With the land ravaged by war and famine, men and boys are taken from the fields to be pawns in the chess game of the elite--clan against clan, neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother. Those left behind must fend for themselves against the beasts that conspire to wipe them from their small existences.

Two women cling to each other and solemnly decide to live the unscrupulous life of marauders, taking the valuables from wandering samurai. Surrounded by wilderness they pillage corpses and throw them into a pit. They have been alone for years, waiting patiently for their loved ones to return and end their hell. But only their boorish neighbor returns, setting into motion conflicts between their most primal desires and their bleak reality.

Onibaba is a cinematic masterpiece that is intensely erotic but steeped in the Buddhist mythology. Part of Japan Society Zen & Its Opposite series, Onibaba represents one of the paths of the "Six Paths of Existences", the Realm of the Animals. In this realm, you are a servant to your desires and instincts. You have no sense of morality and you have a devil-may-care attitude about life and people. If that sounds like nihilism, Onibaba goes far beyond and pierces deep into the human  psyche.

The film is an exploration of Sigmund Freud’s concept of das Es--literally "the It" but better known as the Id.  Freud stated in his study of "The Interpretation of Dreams (1900s)", later republished in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents:
It is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, what little we know we have learnt from our study of the dream-work and of the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of this is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast the ego. We all approach the id with analogies; we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations. It’s filled with energy reaching it from instincts, but has no organization, produces, no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.
The Id is in control of Onibaba's three main characters; their daily existence is governed by finding life's 'pleasures' (shelter, food, water, sexual gratification) and extinguishing anything that gets in the way of attaining them. In wonderfully intoxicating, 60s Japanese cinematic form, Onibaba exemplifies how the Id can dehumanize us to mere beasts and keep up from attaining our ideal life--a valuable lesson for the world's weary wanderers.

Onibaba screens at Japan Society Friday, November 12. Tickets are $12 general admission, and $9 for Japan Society members, students and seniors. You can read more about Onibaba in The Wall Street Journal's recent article "Haunting Films of Japan" or check out the Criterion Collection DVD.


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