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Onibaba The Criterion Collection
Directed by Kaneto Shindo in 1964 and based on a Buddhist folk story, Onibaba is set in the Japan of the fourteenth century during a civil war. A pair of soldiers is murdered in a field by an old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura), their bodies looted and then dumped in a pit. When the sun rises the next day, they attempt to trade the armor that they stole to a man named Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama) for some much needed food. They talk, and he propositions the older woman, and they leave.
Some time later, their neighbor, Hachi (Kei Sato), arrives home from serving in the war. The younger woman's husband (the son of the older woman), Kishi, was also away at war and so the younger woman asks Hachi for news and he lets them know that he was killed while stealing food from a farm. The older woman blames Hachi for Kishi's death.
The next night, a masked samurai (Jukichi Uno) asks the older woman for help getting out of the field and a short time later, he too is dead in a pit, his body looted. When the mask is taken off, she sees how disfigured his face was. Meanwhile, the younger woman starts spending more time with Hachi, the older woman using the mask to convince the younger one that a demon is out to punish her for her relationship with Hachi. Things get stranger from there, but Hachi will not be ignored despite the older woman's efforts to keep he and the younger woman apart.
As stylish as it is moody, Onibaba does not want for atmosphere. It's a bit of a slow burn but it's also surprisingly graphic for its time, not flinching from the sex or violence inherent in its storyline. The pacing is definitely controlled and the movie is better for it, and the lush visuals and ornate lighting really enhances the fantastic sets and locations used for the film as well as the fairly ornate costuming that is on display throughout much of the picture. There's a lot of attention paid to period detail here, and the movie feels authentic enough in its depiction of its time line that we're never pulled out of the movie but rather, always engaged with it.
As far as the acting goes, Shindowas lucky enough to work with a really good cast here. The supporting players all do fine work, with Kei Sato and Taiji Tonoyama really doing great work here. That said, it's Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura who really make the strongest impressions here. They play off of one another very well and it's hard to imagine their work here being as good if they were cast opposite different performers.
While the middle stretch of the film may have benefitted from some slightly more judicious editing, the film opens and ends on very strong notes, making everything that happens in between more than worthwhile. At times as sexy as is it entirely bizarre, Onibaba stands not only as an excellent example of Japanese folk horror but as a testament to Kaneto Shindo skills as a director as well.
The Criterion Collection presents Onibaba in an AVC encoded 1080p 2.35.1 widescreen presentation. The feature takes up 31GBs of space on a 50GB disc and is taken a "restored high definition presentation." The black and white picture looks quite a bit improved over the previous DVD release, showing much stronger depth, detail and texture. It's naturally grainy and very film-like. There isn't much in the way of actual print damage, just a few specks here and there. Contrast looks pretty solid and black levels are good.
The only audio option offered is a 24-bit LPCM Mono track in the film's native Japanese, with optional subtitles provided in English only. Again, no complaints here. The single channel mixes are clean, balanced and properly authentic. Dialogue is always easy to understand and follow, the score sounds nice and crisp and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion.
Extras on the disc start off with the 2001 audio commentary with director Kaneto Shindo and actors Kei Sato and Jitsuko Yoshimura (which is presented in Japanese with optional English subtitles) that was included on the older UK DVD edition. For those who haven't heard it, it's quite informative, covering the origin of the film, the casting, who did what behind the camera, and how they feel about the picture years since making it.
The disc also includes a twenty-one minute interview from 2003 with Shindo, carried over from the original Criterion DVD release. This covers some of the same ground as the commentary but it's interesting nevertheless. Finishing up the extras on the disc is thirty-eight minutes of footage shot on location by Sato during the making of the movie. A trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection finish things up. Included inside the disc alongside the disc is a color insert booklet that contains credits for the feature and the disc release as well as an essay by film critic Elena Lazic, a director's statement by Shindo and Buddhist folk story that served as the original inspiration for the feature.
Onibaba is an effectively eerie slice of Japanese folk horror and Criterion's Blu-ray release is a good one, presenting the movie in very nice shape and with some solid extra features as well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.