A pair of wounded samurai wade through a dense, endless sea of tall grass, leaning on one other for support. Every line on their blood-soaked, mud-caked faces reveals the horrors they have witnessed; whichever side wins the battle they’ve deserted, each and every man that stayed to fight it will inevitably lose.
Suddenly, two spears part the swaying stalks and pierce the soldiers’ hearts. An Old Woman, her gaunt, cruel features framed by a tangled rat’s nest of hair that evokes The Bride of Frankenstein, emerges from the foliage, followed closely by her nubile daughter-in-law. Working efficiently and methodically, they strip the corpses of their armor like butchers carving the flesh from a steaming carcass. After disposing of the bodies, they return to their dilapidated shack, gorge themselves on handfuls of rice, and collapse on their shared bedding.
This has become their routine–slaying wayward warriors, selling the spoils on the black market, and awaiting the return of the Old Woman’s son. Poverty and ceaseless warfare have made them indifferent to the suffering of others, transformed them into savage, feral beasts–with the domineering Old Woman at the top of the pack hierarchy.
But when Hachi, a former neighbor, arrives with news of her son’s demise, the Old Woman finds her role of dominance thrown into jeopardy. Hairy, bare-chested, and glistening with sweat, Hachi embodies a raw, animalistic masculinity that quickly wins the daughter-in-law’s affections–threatening to dissolve the whole murderous enterprise. Desperate to cling to what little power she’s ever known, the Old Woman slips on a grotesque mask (stolen, of course, from one of her victims) and masquerades as an angry spirit, using fear to drive the amorous lovers apart.
Her ploy succeeds only in guaranteeing her eventual downfall.
Therein lies the genius of writer/director Kaneto Shindo: rather than relying on jump scares and supernatural shenanigans, he dives headfirst into the darkest depths of the human soul, ultimately determining that a spooky story doesn’t need ghosts and ghouls–people are more than monstrous enough.