The tales of Onibaba the Demon Hag are numerous and bloody. Her myths are centered around primal fears of pregnancy, menopause, and desperation.
Be warned, this post contains tales of fetal murder and cannibalism, as well as images of nudity.
Onibaba’s most famous story begins with a merchant family and a midwife. Shortly after giving birth to a daughter, the merchant family grows despondent to discover their daughter is rather sickly. They seek out a priest to heal her, and the priest informs them that the only cure for her illness is to consume the healthy liver of a newborn child.
In a classic tale of short-sightedness and desperate selfishness, the merchant family tasks the midwife with finding the liver. Never mind where it will come from, or that should it have been another person’s infant, they wouldn’t have given up their daughter’s liver to save another babe.
The midwife, however, does seem to understand that this will be a long and somewhat fruitless venture, and leaves the daughter with a protective charm, asking the gods to protect her while she waits for the liver.
It is no surprise to anyone, of course, that the midwife can not find a single family willing to sacrifice their child’s liver for her charge, and many years pass, her efforts unrewarded.
It happens that during a storm one night, the midwife, distressed and frantic for her poor charge, decides that she must change her tactics. She lies in wait on the side of the road with cooking knife, determined to take the liver she needs at the next opportunity.
A pregnant woman rounds the corner.
Diving out from the bushes, the midwife grabs and binds the pregnant woman, slicing open her belly and making short work of the child within. The liver finally in bloody hand, the midwife screams in tortured relief, but a glint on the woman stills her: a charm.
The same protective charm she had given to that baby girl all those years ago.
Horrified in this gruesome discovery, the midwife rips her own robes, the depths of her despair calling forth demons that soon possess her. She eats the liver she had stolen for and from her charge, and becomes a full-fledged yokai.
She escapes to the mountains, becoming feral and grotesque, though the curse of the yokai always brings her back to the roadsides, to find more infant livers.
The tales of Onibaba are more numerous, of course, but it is easy to see why this one terrifies the most. While many horror tales focusing on pregnant women deal with the “monster growing within,” the stories of Onibaba tend to lend themselves to the deadly jealousy of the Crone, too old to bare, too old to be sexually attractive to men, and in the confines of traditional womanhood, therefore, being cast out as worthless. The idea of the old woman becoming a demon at the age when a regular female would be going through menopause is interesting, and purely my own conjecture: in many images, Onibaba is portrayed as being bare-chested, a sight that would normally arouse feelings of attraction. Yet Onibaba is so hideous that the only emotion available is horror and rejection. These reactions come from nothing other than her portrayed age; wrinkled skin and sagging breasts, loose jowls and irregular teeth are the natural progression of age, and can be beautiful, but are rarely shown as such.
In the world of Japanese monsters, Onibaba is a force not easily forgotten, and most certainly primal in nature.
A Japanese movie was made in 1964 that features the birth of an Onibaba, and is available on Youtube. The film is in black and white, and the subtitles are a little delayed, but Onibaba is acclaimed as the Psycho of Japanese horror films, with excellent cinematography and tension. I watched the film for this post, and can recommend it to those who love older movies. It’s a great look at the haunting effects of the feudal period of Japan on laymen.