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ONIBABA

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Sato, Jukichi Uno
Director: Kaneto Shindo
Audio: Japanese monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 2.35:1 widescreen
Studio: Criterion
Features: Kaneto Shindo intro & interview, location footage, trailer, stills gallery, essays
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: March 16, 2004

We’ll skin you and eat you!

Film *** ½

The year 1964 was a particularly memorable one for Japanese horror.  It saw the release of Masaki Kobayashi’s lyrically haunting Kwaidan, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s bizarrely surreal Woman in the Dunes, and Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (Demonic Woman).  All three films mixed psychological horror with sensuality but perhaps none more aggressively so than Onibaba.

This unusual horror film was Kaneto Shindo’s tenth directorial effort overall.  It was independently produced by Shindo after the director had completed a fruitful internship under the guidance of Kenji Mizoguchi, one of Japan’s premier directors.  Onibaba offers a loose interpretation of one of many Ofumi Buddhist fables Shindo had learned in his childhood.  In the original tale, an old woman, out of spite against her pious daughter-in-law, tries to prevent the young girl from praying at a local Buddhist temple.  The old woman dons a demon’s mask to frighten her daughter-in-law but fails; as punishment, the mask then becomes affixed to the woman’s face.  Only through confessing her sins and praying devoutly to Buddha at the temple is the old woman able to eventually remove the dreadful mask.

This original fable was intended to promote the teachings of Buddhism.  In Shindo's screen adaptation, the religious overtones are muted and the story altered so that the antagonism between the two women now arises from jealousy.  The young daughter-in-law now has a lover, and envy provides a sexual motivation for the older (and lonely) woman’s attempts to frighten the young daughter-in-law.  Misery loves company, after all.

Onibaba is set during the Sengoku Warring States period (of the fifteenth to seventeenth century).  It is a time of grave civil war.  Kyoto has fallen, and two emperors, vying for control of Japan, have torn the country apart.  Men are conscripted without warning, many to die anonymously in pointless battles and skirmishes.  The few who survive combat perish from starvation, for with so many men drawn into this bloody contest, who remains to tend the fields?

Madness grips the land.  Talk circulates of a horse that has given birth to a calf, of the blackness of days, or a lawless anarchy that carries with it the kernel of evil.  With the country at war and its people starving, the Japanese countryside has devolved into a forbidden zone where wandering samurai and priests alike are killed simply for their clothing and material possessions.

The story opens shortly after the Battle of Minatogawa.  In this medieval Japan torn by civil war, an old woman (Nobuko Otowa), so robbed of her son by the war, lives on in the remote edges of a susuki field.  Her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) remains by her side.  Together, they ambush lost samurai, stripping them of their armor and gear, and dump the bodies to rot into a deep hole in the marshes.  The women trade these spoils of war to a local merchant for food.  Such a cruel and bloody existence can only lead to karmic tragedy in the end.

One evening, Hachi, a local farmer, returns from the war.  He is a beast-like man, almost feral, at one point even howling like a rabid dog, and he bears bad news - the death of the old woman’s son.  Hachi has plans to remain home now, and soon he begins to set his leering attentions upon the young daughter-in-law.  The old woman, fearing that she will be abandoned by the daughter-in-law and left on her own, plots to keep the young girl bound to her by familial duty.

The old woman senses an opportunity when a lost samurai wanders into her hut late one night seeking a path back to Kyoto.  He wears a fierce demon's mask, the better with which to frighten his enemies in battle.  With a stone heart, the old woman ambushes the warlord by leading him to the marsh hole and watching him plunge to his death before retrieving the dead man’s mask.  It presents a terrifying visage, the better with which to frighten the daughter-in-law away from her nocturnal sojourns to Hachi’s hut.

Onibaba is in a sense a morality play that cautions against the inner ugliness that inevitably reflects itself outwardly.  One woman’s sexual hunger and jealousy drives her to a certain madness born of desperation; whether for material possession or companionship, this driving force becomes an insatiable hunger, like the gaping maw-like hole into which the women toss their victims.

There is a great deal of frank sexuality in Onibaba.  The numerous shots of undulating Susuki grasses seem to symbolize the flow of sexual tension and emotion in the film.  The emergence of a masked demon figure from these same grassy fields suggests that the root of evil lies within our primal instincts for lust, sexuality, and promiscuity (keeping in mind that such was the premise of the Buddhist fable upon which the film was based).

Onibaba was filmed in a susuki field over a course of several months.  In fact, the production was regularly plagued by an infestation of bugs and ravenous crawfish, not to mention the forces of nature - constant flooding, perpetual mud, and all the unimaginable horrors of on-location shooting in a festering, stinking marsh.  Yet in the end, all this merciless misery serves Onibaba well, permeating throughout the film and embodying it with an otherworldly surrealism that is ideally suited to the film’s dark imagery.  If Onibaba is regarded as Kaneto Shindo’s finest film, then credit must be given not only to the eerie cinematography and disturbing storyline but also to the ambiance of the miserable marsh, essentially a primordial setting that accentuates the extremes to which human cruelty can reach.

Video ** ½

Onibaba is presented in its original black & white, 2.35:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio.  The transfer was made from a 35mm fine-grain print.  The image is fair in quality and sharp in day sequences, but details tend to become obscured in the numerous darker sequences.

Audio ** ½

There is only sparse dialogue throughout the film, with the story told as much through visual imagery as through verbal exchanges.  The monaural audio has been cleaned to minimize clicks, pops, hiss, and crackle.  The eerie score by Hikaru Hayashi, with its Noh vocalizations and percussive Taiko drumbeats, perfectly complements the film’s progressively disturbing images.  Other unusual sound effects include the cooing of pigeons to suggest the young woman’s growing sense of sexual desire.

Features ** ½

Director Kaneto Shindo appears in an interview (21 min.) and discusses his career as well as the film Onibaba, its cinematography, themes, actors, and symbolism.

The behind-the-scenes featurette (38 min.) is comprised of mostly black & white with some color super-8 footage shot by actor Kei Sato.  This entirely silent footage is scratchy and washed-out but offers rare documentation of this film's production.  There are accompanying notes describing the context of these various scenes within the film; included are some production stills and translated notes from director Kaneto Shindo, too.

There is also a spooky if somewhat incomplete trailer and a gallery of 25 production designs, stills, and promotional art, plus linear notes pertaining to these entries.

Lastly, there is a booklet with cast & crew information, DVD details, and three short essays.  “Black Sun Rising” by Chuck Stephens provides a career synopsis for Shindo as well as a lurid description of Onibaba’s more primordial aspects.  “A Mask with Flesh Scared a Wife” is a re-telling of a Saint Rennyo fable designed to promote the Buddhist faith.  “Waving Susuki Fields” by Kaneto Shindo re-iterates statements made by the director in the interview included on the disc.  Shindo also discusses the Buddhist background of the film’s source fable.

Summary:

Kaneto Shindo’s erotic Japanese tale of the macabre, Onibaba, is a perfect complement to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s very surreal Woman of the Dunes.  Both films explore similar themes of sexuality and the need for human companionship, although Onibaba tosses in a horrific element as well.

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