Blu-ray Review: Onibaba | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, October 26th, 2021  


Studio: The Criterion Collection

Oct 07, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (which roughly translates to “demon hag”) is at its heart a survival story. Always interested in exploring how humans carry out their existence on a day-to-day basis, Shindo more often than not uses his films to depict the human condition in times of war. He began his directorial career less than a decade after the end of World War II, and the harrowing aftereffects of it lurk deep within his filmography. Whether being directly explored, as it is in his 1952 film Children of Hiroshima, or subtextual in 1960’s The Naked Island (which depicts a family’s struggle to survive on an island located in Hiroshima), Shindo presents the characters in his films as products, or rather victims, of war, past or present.

Based upon a Shin Buddhist fable, Onibaba takes place during a period of civil war in the mid-14th century. A young woman (Jitsuko Yoshimura) and her mother-in-law (Nobuko Otowa) live in a hut among a seemingly endless field of tall susuki grass, which provides an ominous presence from the film’s very first frame. Unable to cultivate crops due to the war-ravaged land they live on, they make a living off killing lost and wandering samurais, stripping them of their belongings and selling them for food. Their old neighbor, Hachi (Kei Satō), returns from the war and begins to have sexual escapades with the young woman, provoking jealousy in the mother-in-law, who is not only afraid of being abandoned and having to survive on her own, but also angry of not being desired.

The crux of the film’s thematic underpinnings lies in its usage of the Hannya mask, which first makes an appearance at the narrative’s turning point. The Hannya mask, used in Japanese Noh theatre and featured in the film’s most iconic shots, is meant to visually depict a scorned and jealous woman. The way the film progresses and is ultimately brought full circle by the mask not only provides haunting and unforgettable imagery, but also highlights Shindo’s brilliance as a storyteller.

Onibaba is an exercise in cinematic minimalism. The film is light on dialogue and set in a stark landscape for its entirety, effectively utilizing the CinemaScope frame to engulf the protagonists and make them appear small in relation to their all-encompassing environment. These elemental building blocks effectively set the stage for the bursting primality of the film’s characters and its harrowing portrait of the effects of war not on soldiers, but on the women who are left behind.

Though we know from the very first scene that the two female protagonists murder for a living, they are not made out to be intrinsically evil; rather, Shindo reveals the corrupting nature of war on innocent bystanders, who are forced to abandon their morals and rely on their most base instincts for the sole purpose of survival. The violence and sexuality present in the film (which most likely caused quite a stir in its initial release) is tame by today’s standards, but has lost none of its visceral power in its depiction of humans being reduced to their animal form when the veneer of societal norms has been stripped away by war.

Often labeled as either a period drama or a horror film, Onibaba combines the two in an idiosyncratic way. It does not rely on traditional scares, but cuts deep precisely because of the real-life horrors with which it echoes. Shindo himself has stated that the shocking images seen in the film’s climax were inspired by “hibakusha,” or the citizens of Japan who were left disfigured after the Hiroshima bombing. Being based on a fable, the simplicity and archetypal nature of the film’s story and motifs nonetheless give it a universality which can be transferred to any time period.

The elements of conventional horror which the film does retain lie mainly in its frenetically anachronistic jazz score from Hikaru Hayashi, which pierces through during moments of silence, predating the conventional jump scares of today (albeit in a more tasteful way). Onibaba is a specific brand of postmodern horror that doesn’t utilize the genre in an overt way, rather letting it seep in naturally through its imagery and atmosphere. Its influence can be felt in modern horror films of a similar vein, whether in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, which also uses folklore and a barren landscape as its setting to depict the primality of human nature, or even Robert Eggers’ The Witch, another fable depicting repression, sexuality, and superstition in an old-time setting.

The Criterion Collection restoration of the film brings out its stark, beautiful cinematography by Kiyomi Kuroda. It retains the features present on the original 2003 Criterion edition of the film: an audio commentary with Shindo alongside actors Kei Satō and Jitsuko Yoshimura, an interview with Shindo, and on-set 8mm footage taken by Satō. Added to the new edition is a wonderful essay by film critic Elena Kazic. The film itself is a landmark in the horror genre (which even The Exorcist director William Friedkin referred to as the scariest film he’s ever seen), and this new Criterion edition reinforces its status as one of the blueprints for 21st-century horror.



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