Director: Kaneto Shindô
Screenplay: Kaneto Shindô
Starring: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Satô
Producer: Hisao Itoya, Tamotsu Minato, Setsuo Noto
Running Time: 100 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I can remember hearing about Onibaba way back when I was first getting into world (and particularly Japanese) cinema as a teenager. It always sounded like my sort of thing – an arty genre film with a strong visual style. Somehow it always evaded me though. The DVD was too pricey for my well-secured and frequently empty wallet and when I rented it once I never got around to watching it for whatever reason. As is often the case, Masters of Cinema came to the rescue though recently as they upgraded their DVD release of Onibaba to Blu-Ray. Needless to say I leapt at the chance to review it.
Back in the early 60's Kaneto Shindô had found some critical success overseas with his peculiar drama The Naked Island, but it was Onibaba in 1964 that turned the most heads and remains probably his most famous and successful film (critically speaking).
It follows the disturbing practises of two women, a middle-aged mother (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter in law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) during the civil war in 14th century Japan. Fending for themselves as their son/husband Kichi has left to fight, the couple murder samurai that stumble into the tall reeds in which they live and they sell their victim's clothes and weapons to a local merchant. The bodies are then flung down a dark hole hidden in the centre of the field of reeds. One day the women's neighbour Hachi (Kei Satô) returns from the field of battle and tells them that Kichi is dead. As they carry on with their lives, Hachi manages to win over the affections of the wife and they embark on a sordid relationship, much to the disgust of the mother. As well as not wanting to lose her one companion and 'work-mate' it's clear she is jealous of the younger woman's sexual adventures too. She does all she can to split the two up, but her plan cruelly backfires in some dark and supernatural ways.
Well I can safely say this lived up to my expectations. I'd watched Shindô's later horror companion piece Kuroneko recently and liked it, but as a whole it didn't blow me away as much as I'd hoped. Onibaba was more effective though, largely because its more formally simplistic narrative appealed to me – I often prefer my films stripped down and raw. To call this simplistic wouldn't do it justice though. It's a film that can and has been read into in various ways. The abstract nature of some of the events on screen, the sexuality and the symbolic imagery all cry out for interpretation. For me though, the film works best as a piece of pure cinema.
It's a stunningly well shot film. Making the most of its dramatic setting, the endlessly swirling reeds are spookily hypnotic (helped by some ahead-of-its-time sound design) and the high contrast lighting creates pools of total darkness and piercing light to great effect. In terms of atmosphere the film is second to none. From the disturbing murder of two samurai at the start of the film to the ghostly appearances of the demon in the final half an hour, the film revels in mood and masterfully handled set-pieces. The sexual nature of the film is potent too, with Hachi and the wife's scenes dripping with animal lust.
The only reason I didn't give this a full 5 stars is that I'd been hyping the film up for over a decade and I was expecting more supernatural elements than I got. However, it still lived up to my expectations with such a strong sense of mood and place. Much like my very favourite film of all time Once Upon a Time in the West, this is a fine example of the strength of cinema as an art form, bringing a number of techniques together to create a breathtaking, dirtily beautiful and visceral experience that other art forms can't hope to recreate.
Onibaba is out in the UK on 25th February on Blu-Ray, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. The picture quality is stunning, presenting the glorious cinematography in the best light with no damage at all and retaining the natural grain from the source material. Audio is clear too.
The features are the same as they were in the Masters of Cinema DVD release several years back. If you don't have that version these are wonderful additions. There's 30 minutes worth of home video footage shot by actor Kei Satô – this isn't particularly engaging as it's silent and randomly constructed, but it's a nice find and still interesting to watch. You also get a short but very informative introduction from Alex Cox. Best of all though is an audio commentary featuring director Shindô and actors Jitsuko Yoshimura and Kei Satô. Recorded at the time of the DVD release, it's fascinating and rare to hear a commentary on a classic world cinema title with such a collection of original cast and crew members. The three of them have a good rapport and the commentary makes for a fascinating listen (or watch – it's subtitled, unless you speak Japanese).
And of course you get the customary booklet of writing on the film. There's plenty of content from Shindô himself as well as the original fable which inspired the story and plenty of behind the scenes and publicity stills.