Prolific Scriptwriter and Director Kaneto Shindo has had a long successful career that has spanned over fifty years to date, garnering numerous awards and critical plaudits across the globe, but if there is one film for which he will always be remembered then that must surely be the dark tale of survival and desire during wartime Japan: Onibaba. When the film hit theatres in 1964 critics were taken aback by Shindo’s shift from predominantly arthouse productions to salacious mainstream cinema, but the film performed very well at box offices home and abroad, becoming a successful bridge for the director into more commercial productions that further cemented his status as one of Japan’s greatest living directors.
Onibaba is set during the Sengoku Jidai (“The Warring Era”) period of Japan, which was a time when intense civil conflict ravaged the land and threatened to tear the lower classes asunder, as the women and farmers were left to starve and rot while the majority of Japan’s men were forcibly drafted into local clan skirmishes. It is under these impoverished, desperate conditions that we are introduced to two nameless female protagonists, a Mother and Daughter-in-Law duo who earn a crust by slaughtering injured soldiers unfortunate enough to wander into their Susuki fields. After each kill they strip the bodies and dispose of the naked carcasses in an ominously dark hole that seems to plummet to the very depths of hell itself. The motive is simple enough, with constant battles being waged across the country, armour and weaponry are in high demand and can easily be traded in for enough food and drink to ensure survival, but this precarious lifestyle requires the teamwork of both women to maintain. It’s a plan that has seen them through the harsh seasonal changes, but when their brash neighbour Hachi returns from battle with the news that their husband/son was killed by a gang of farmers, the old mother envisions a bumpy road ahead. Now that her son’s dead she’ll have to rely solely on the Daughter-in-Law for the foreseeable future, but Hachi is desperate to take the young attractive widow for himself - and it seems his amorous advances are working. With the young couple starting a steamy affair behind the mother’s back, a tense game of cat & mouse begins as the old lady plots to break the lovebirds apart at any cost. This grim resolve leads her down the road to hell when a mysterious Samurai appears outside her door one night wearing a horrendous demon mask…..
Based on an old Buddhist parable called “A Mask with Flesh Scared a Wife” the story tells of a wicked old hag who tries to stop her virtuous daughter-in-law from visiting the local temple by wearing a demon mask to frighten her away from the road to said temple. The plan back-fires when the daughter’s faith proves too great to terrify so easily, then Buddha reigns holy vengeance down on the old hag by bonding the mask permanently to her face. In Onibaba, Shindo takes the basic elements of this tale and applies them to a far more modern, naturalistic study of humanity’s self-destructive tendencies and the terrible instinct for survival that people in desperate situations can develop. The basic message of this film is simple enough, when society makes it impossible for the individual to survive; the individual has no option but to de-evolve into animalistic scavengers and hunters who soon succumb to their deepest feral cravings. Although the Daughter-in-Law at first rebukes Hachi’s advances, it’s not long before her sexual cravings overcome her initial reluctance, and the two conjoin in a serious of inexplicit but powerful encounters that are surprisingly sensual despite their unglamourous portrayal as sweaty, aggressive fumbles amidst the grime and dirt of their environment. These elicit copulations give the young couple an invigorating respite from the harsh, repressive climate that surrounds them, but to the old Mother their burgeoning relationship is a threat to her existence - not to mention a source of erotic titillation that can never be fulfilled because Hachi ignores all of her amorous advances.
Her first attempts to put a spanner in the works is to try and fool the Daughter-in-Law with moralistic tales about the sins of infidelity, despite the fact she no longer has a husband to cheat on. The introduction of moral values at this stage in the film after the protagonists have committed so many crimes is of course deeply ironic, but that didn’t stop some critics at the time (who were expecting Shindo’s usual restrained, socialist approach) from complaining that these overtly political undertones were inappropriate. I feel this is a little unfair, because the Mother only raises the point that fornication is a grave sin as a propaganda tool to suppress and control her daughter-in-law, much like the Samurai clans used duty and honour as a leash around their own members’ necks. When these arguments elicit little reaction from the Daughter-in-Law she resorts to the most powerful tool of persuasion there is – fear, but this ultimately leads her on to the path of self-destruction.
Onibaba has always been a powerful thriller because its themes are universal and the subject is completely believable, despite numerous allusions to Japanese myth occurring throughout. There’s also a lot more to this classic than rich thematics and erotic sex scenes, it’s an incredibly accomplished film. While there aren’t many names on the cast list, the leading performances are all excellent. Nobuko Otowa perfectly captures the terrible cynicism and fear of isolation as old age approaches that drives the Mother to desperate measures, while Jitsuko Sato naturalistically conveys the naivety and rampant sexual desire that consumes the Daughter-in-Law. Kei Sato also manages to act up a storm as the unbridledly gluttonous Hachi, a role which has aggressive animalistic layers that could so easily have led him into the trap of completely overacting every scene he’s in, but his performance is quite subtle when situation calls for it. The three leads portray their roles so believably that you can’t help but feel sorry for these characters, even though they have been reduced to their basest nature by the social upheavals of the period.
Of course, Kaneto Shindo’s direction is never less than excellent either. He went to great pains to find a location enveloped by looming Susuki grass and reeds, which lead to a long and difficult shoot in a bog ridden section of Chiba, but his decision pays off spectacularly. Not only are the tall, elegant fields visually captivating, but they become potent symbols of the repressive social climate that blankets these unimportant members of the working class. Shindo also heightens the effect of the natural surroundings with some spectacular compositions, ranging from extreme close ups to telescopic pans that show the full scope of the area, and his use of differing camera speeds to represent the emotional turmoil of the characters is extremely evocative. Onibaba isn’t completely naturalistic though, Hikaru Hayashi’s score is very theatrical; combining unnerving drumbeats and guttural screams with some haunting string arrangements, while Shindo adds to the theatrical flourishes by lighting certain scenes in an overtly stylistic way - for instance his use of spotlights and deep black backgrounds, which effectively blur the lines between gritty realism and ethereal impressionism when needed.
Although the story of Onibaba may seem very simple and direct, the general mood of the piece lends itself to so many different interpretations that you can watch it a hundred times and come to a slightly different conclusion with each viewing. It’s one of those rare films that just never gets stale no matter how many times you sit down in front of it, and to discuss all the themes of the piece would require a lengthy essay rather than a website review (For instance, despite the length of this review I still haven’t mentioned the hole!). So if you’ve never gone out of your way to catch this masterpiece of Asian horror, I recommend you rectify that decision right now.
PresentationPresented anamorphically at 2.33:1, Eureka have done a fine job of porting the r2j Asmik Ace DVD. Online comparisons show that this release is clearly more detailed than the R1 Criterion disc, so UK buyers can rest assured that we’ve not been short changed in this department. Saying that though, the print used could’ve done with a little more TLC applied as there’s a fair amount of print damage on display throughout the film - namely in the form of sparkle, scratches and the occasional tear which, for a film of Onibaba’s age, is nothing to be too concerned about. Edge Enhancement is present pretty much throughout, but it is very fine so I doubt anyone below, say a 42” display will find it even remotely distracting. In all other departments the transfer performs very well. Contrast, black levels and brightness are all very pleasing – yes some scenes do have a distinct lack of shadow detail, but I’m willing to bet this was down to the contrast tinkering Shindo did to make scenes shot during the day look like night on film. This is a very pleasing transfer.
For the audio Eureka have included a Japanese DD2.0 Stereo mix that unfortunately is showing a lot more signs of age than the video. The good news is that the soundtrack is perfectly acceptable for a film over four decades old by the time of release; dialogue is audible, dynamics are good, and while the bass is a tad soft it’s deep enough to give the score and action a little gravitas. The bad news is that there is constant audible hiss (of varying severity) throughout, not to mention the numerous pops and crackles that frequently crop up. Likewise dialogue is harsh and shrill, with lots of tear whenever loud screaming occurs – which is regularly in a film like Onibaba. In short, this Japanese track does the job without leaving a nasty taste in your, err… ears, afterwards. But I doubt audiophiles will be using it as reference material for older soundtracks.
Optional English subtitles are present, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.
ExtrasThere’s a fine selection of extras both on and off this disc. First up is a six minute introduction by Alex Cox of Repo-Man and Sid & Nancy fame - not to mention the documentary Kurosawa: The Last Emperor, so this is a guy with good knowledge and a vested interest in Japanese cinema. Tastefully shot in black and white to match the feature presentation, this is an excellent little introduction that sums up in six minutes everything you need to know in order to get the most out of the film, well worth checking out. Next up is a Feature Length Audio Commentary with Director Kaneto Shindo, and Stars Jitsuko Yoshimura & Kei Sato, which was recorded in 2001 for the r2j Asmik Ace DVD release and is presented in Japanese DD1.0 with removable English subtitles. Full credit goes out to Eureka for porting this commentary over because it is an excellent feature, Kaneto Shindo might have been in his last year as an Octogenarian when he took part in this recording but his memory of the production is clear as glass and he provides a wealth of information on just about every aspect of the production. He’s good natured, very witty and clearly gets along well with Jitsuko and Kei, who also have lots to say about the film, Kei even has the shoot’s production notes at hand to verify any facts that Shindo is unclear on (there aren’t many). This commentary is a must for any fan of the film and might prove just the incentive for Criterion owners to double dip.
The other major extra feature on the disc is 45minutes of 8mm Footage Shot by Kei Sato during the film’s production. The fullscreen print has worn quite heavily over the years and there isn’t any audio to accompany the images so it’s down to title cards to give us brief introductions to each segment of the shoot, but it’s fascinating to see the crew beavering away like troopers in the hot, bug-ridden environment. In fact anyone with an insect phobia might want to skip this feature! There’s also plenty of footage of Shindo and his cast, both off and on set - not to mention some brief colour segments that reveal the terrain of Onibaba’s marshland in all its glory. Rounding up the extra features on the disc is the Original Theatrical Trailer (sans the original titles unfortunately) and a Production Stills Gallery. Aside from the excellent extras on the disc, Eureka have also included an extremely informative 24-page booklet; which features an essay on Onibaba by Doug Cummings, notes from Kaneto Shindo on his reasons for creating the film, an English adaptation of A Mask with Flesh Scared a Wife: the Buddhist story that inspired Onibaba, and finally part.2 of Joan Mellen’s interview with Shindo (See The Naked Island for the first part).