Director: Kaneto Shindo
Screenplay: Kaneto Shindo
Stars: Nobuko Otowa (Woman), Jitsuko Yoshimura (Young Woman), Kei Sato (Hachi), Jukichi Uno (Samurai), Taiji Tonoyama (Ushi)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1964
Country: Japan
Onibaba DVD
I know what you’ve been up toKaneto Shindo’s Onibaba, which was made independently outside of the Japanese studio system, is an atmospheric melodrama based on an ancient Buddhist folk tale. Set in the “Warring States” period of feudal Japan, it tells the story of desperate people trying to not just stay alive in a world of chaos, but to maintain a semblance of humanity. Feeling and sexuality are at the heart of the film, as those base instincts—not just animalistic physicality, but desire fraught with emotion and the need for connection—are the characters’ last refuge.

Shindo made the brilliant decision to set the film amid the towering reeds of a suski grass field, which has an intense focusing effect on the narrative. It is set in a time of war, and there are even suggestions of near-apocalyptic destruction, as we never see any genuine signs of civilization, only its scattered remains. The field serves to isolate the characters, creating a sort of microcosm of humanity that is, for all intents and purposes, cut off from the warfare of the outer world.

That is not to say, however, that there are no intrusions. In fact, the two central characters, an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her young daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura), survive by ambushing wounded soldiers who wander into the reeds, killing them and stealing their weapons and armor to sell for food. Afterwards, they dump the bodies in a yawning black hole in the middle of the field whose inherent out-of-placeness begs for a symbolic reading (it’s like fate waiting to swallow up the weak). Theirs is a pathetic, desperate way of life, but the women have no other choice. Cut off from the rest of the world, their crops have failed in bad weather and they are constantly on the edge of starvation. The efficiency they have developed in killing samurai is startling, but they maintain some sense of dignity, evidenced by the older woman’s refusal to sleep with the bandit they sell the stolen goods to in exchange for more food.

Their lives are upended when one of their neighbors, Hachi (Kei Sato), returns from the war with news that the woman’s son (who is, of course, the younger woman’s husband) has been killed. Hachi’s nonchalant manner in bringing this awful news is only the first of his many abominable character traits (it is suggested that he may have killed the other man himself, but there is never any evidence for or against his guilt). Hachi is depicted as something of an animal, and despite the older woman’s protestations, the younger woman is seduced by his magnetism and they become lovers. The young woman’s attraction to Hachi, especially given the recent death of her husband, can be explained only in terms of the same desperation that leads her to kill for food. Human contact, like nourishment, is a necessity, and Shindo bravely and without judgment portrays sexuality as one of humanity’s inherent drives that will not go unfulfilled.

The older woman attempts to break up the lovers, partly out of spite for Hachi’s having come home without her son, partly out of disgust for his animalistic ways, and partly out of envy that she is being left alone every night when her daughter-in-law sneaks out to quench the urges the older woman still feels. She is even desperate enough to literally throw herself at Hachi, only to be cruelly rejected. In an act of desperation, she attempts to scare the younger woman away from Hachi by pretending to be a demon rising up to punish her sinful ways. She does this by donning a frightening demon mask she literally tore from the face of a lost samurai who she lured into the hole one night and killed. The mask itself becomes the film’s overriding visual metaphor, encapsulating both the horrors and the power of human desire.

On a purely aesthetic level, Onibaba is a superb piece of filmmaking, as Shindo embodies sexuality throughout the mise-en-scene, in everything from the swaying grasses, to the cooing of pigeons, to the rising of the moon. There is very little dialogue, so the visuals carry that much more weight, both narratively and symbolically. The strangely compelling atmosphere is heightened by a funky musical score by Hikaru Hayashi that meshes free-form jazz with pounding tribal drums and human voices that sound like screeches from a torture session. The images and sounds tumbles together with reckless abandon, giving Onibaba a merciless forward momentum that only becomes more intense as it draws to its inevitably fatalistic conclusion.

Onibaba Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioJapanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsVideo interview with writer/director Kaneto Shindo
Super-8 footage shot on-location during production
Stills gallery
Original theatrical trailer
Essays by Chuck Stephens and Kaneto Shindo
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateMarch 16, 2004

Onibaba has been given a new, high-definition anamorphic widescreen transfer in its original 2.35:1 TohoScope aspect ratio. The image is well detailed, but some might notice that it seems slightly soft, which is probably the inherent look of the film (after all, it was an independent production that probably didn’t use the best film stock). The black-and-white imagery has good depth and fine gradations of gray that give it a pleasingly filmlike look. The transfer was taken from a 35mm fine-grain print and then digitally cleaned up with the MTI Digital Restoration System so it looks practically brand new. The only complaint that might pop up is a small amount of digital artifacting from time to time that was all but inevitable with a film that contains this much background movement (the sea of grass is always in motion).

The original monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from an optical track print and then digitally restored. It has the expected limitations of its age, but otherwise sounds clean and clear.

While Onibaba was originally released by Criterion back in its laser disc days, virtually all of the supplements are brand new. First on that list is a new 21-minute video interview with writer/director Kaneto Shindo. At 91 years of age, he is lucid and detailed in discussing the film, particularly his aesthetic choices (why he choose black and white over color) and his desire to convey the fundamentals of human sexuality. Also included is nearly 40 minutes of scratchy, but fascinating silent Super-8 black-and-white and color footage of the production shot by actor Kei Sato (the footage is accompanied by a set of notes explaining the difficulties faced during the shoot, included rising marshes and thousands of crawfish that invaded every night). The supplements are rounded out by a “slightly incomplete” original theatrical trailer (in anamorphic 2.35:1) and a stills gallery containing a rare collection of production art, storyboards, pages from the international promotional booklet, and poster art.

Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Toho International Co., Ltd.

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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