Inspired by a Buddhist morality tale, Onibaba, meaning "demon woman" or, more simply, "witch," presents a triangular conflict without love or sentiment. Set during Japan's warring states period, its story concerns two unnamed peasant women. The older woman (Nobuko Otowa), about 45, lives with her young daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) in a small hut in a wetlands region, an area completely surrounded by tall susuki grass. The grass rises well above their heads, and the entire picture has a wonderfully claustrophobic effect, even though a lot of it takes place outdoors. With no food, no farmable land, the women resort to killing wounded and lost samurai, stripping them of their valuable armor and swords to trade for millet with a sleazy war profiteer (Taiji Tonoyama).
As the film opens, Hachi (Kei Sato) returns home from the war with news that the old woman's son died in battle. Left without a husband, the younger woman gradually becomes attracted to Hachi, and he with her. The old woman, however, is consumed with fear at the thought of being abandoned and left to die, and plots to keep the young woman for herself. However, this scheming only fans the flames of their sexual desire (symbolized by the grass, whose sea-like movement corresponds to their passion), and the old woman takes desperate measures after killing a samurai (Jukichi Uno) wearing a demon mask.
The film is an uncluttered, uncomplicated but highly effective tale dramatizing the lengths human beings will go to stay alive. Ultimately, Shindo contends that no matter how desperate and barbaric humans become, sexual relationships and procreation will go on. Like Shindo's dialogue-less The Island (aka The Naked Island; Hadaka no shima, 1960), Onibaba is so well constructed visually that it could almost play as a silent film.
The picture was and is extremely frank in dealing with sexual relationships. This reviewer cannot recall a Japanese movie before or since to feature actresses as prominent as Otowa and Yoshimura gamely commit themselves to long (and unglamorous) nude scenes. Both are excellent, particularly Otowa (Shindo's longtime muse and, eventually, his wife), with her jutting eyebrows, thickly defined eyes, and wild black hair (with its shock of white) is a formidable presence. Yoshimura, before her character's sexual passion is renewed, has a wonderful shell-shocked quality; she looks very much like a woman running on instinct. Kei Sato is appropriately bestial, while Shindo regulars Uno and especially Tonoyama make a strong impression in their roles.
Video & Audio
Criterion's DVD of Onibaba stretches the format to its technological limits. The film is a sea of constantly waving grass, and despite Criterion's best efforts, some digital artifacting and edge enhancement was probably inevitable. Interiors and less-taxing exteriors look great; the film elements (a fine grain was used) look sharp with black blacks. Close-ups look fine, but wider-angle exteriors, in scenes where the grass is especially animated, look somewhat digitized on large, widescreen monitors. That said, overall the film still looks great. The CinemaScope / Toho Scope image has been 16:9 enhanced, doing justice to the often stunning widescreen compositions of Shindo and DP Kiyomi Kuroda. (This reviewer's favorite: above the grass, a long white branch of a dead tree stretches horizontally along the bottom third of the frame, as three black crows sit patiently on it, waiting for samurai to die.) The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound is clear and brings out the best in Hikaru Hayashi's percussion-filled score.
The DVD's primary extra is a 21-minute interview (in 16:9 format) with director Shindo, a man in his early 90s but still active in films and looking 20 years younger. He offers an overview of his early career as a student of Mizoguchi, his frustrations as a big studio employee, his co-founding of indie Kindai Eiga Kyokai. He discusses the production and aesthetics of Onibaba mostly in terms of the sexual issues it raises. Indeed, Shindo seems positively obsessed with sexual matters, even calling it life's central issue. Maybe thatfs what keeps him looking so young. And despite his marriage to Otowa and their collaborations on dozens of films, Shindo, as he always does, never refers to her as his wife -- he refers to her only as Otowa-san.
Also included are almost 38 minutes of Behind the Scenes amateur footage, shot by actor Kei Sato in black & white and color on Super-8. The footage covers the entire production, from Sato's departure from Ueno Station through the long train ride to Chiba and shoot in and around its swamps. Long but never dull, Sato does an excellent job capturing every phase of the production, as well as the more mundane, everyday life of a crew roughing it on location. The footage is silent and could have used a commentary track or title cards identifying key members of the crew, etc., though Reina Higashitani and Moto Toda provide excellent notes which precede the film.
A better-than-average Gallery includes production material and an international sales / marketing booklet. Kudos to Criterion for noting that the film's Trailer is missing its text element. Most labels wouldn't bother to mention this. The trailer, in 16:9 format, arguably looks even better than the feature. Japanese trailers of the period tended to use original negative material of alternate takes, which may account for its unusual sharpness.
A booklet includes a very good essay by Chuck Stephens, a translation of the Buddhist parable that inspired the film, and a brief essay by Shindo himself. My one complaint here, as with all of Criterion foreign language titles, is the lack of more complete credits, either translated onscreen or as part of the booklet.
Beautifully photographed with an intelligent explicitness still almost unique, Onibaba is an effective, fascinating little film, and Criterion's smart packaging of its DVD comes Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.