Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 film "Onibaba" resonates on many levels: a poetic anti-war parable, a macabre meditation on sexuality and a traditional horror film. Just as contradictory, it’s one of those movies that you wish you could forget the moment you finish watching it…so you can have the repeated joy of a fresh viewing. Once again, we have the good folks at Criterion to thank for giving another world cinema classic renewed life on DVD.
Set in medieval Japan amid a vast ocean-like field of tall grass or "susuki," "Onibaba" means "Demon Woman" in Japanese and focuses on two women protagonists. "Woman" (Nobuko Otowa) and "Young Woman," her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura), survive in a war-ravaged landscape by killing wayward samurai, stripping them of their belongings, dumping the bodies into a pit and selling the spoils for grain. (Interestingly, Shindo does not name these characters.) Their bedraggled existence is consoled solely by the fact that one day the wars will end and the one man they share – Woman’s son and Young Woman’s husband – will return.
When Hachi (Kei Sato), a neighbor who was conscripted the same time as the son/husband returns alone to the women, a tragic triangle forms, bordered by sexuality, jealousy and ultimately supernatural forces. Hachi informs them that the son of one and husband of the other died while coming back home. He then starts wooing the newly widowed young woman. Perceiving their emerging union as a threat, the mother-in-law desperately seeks a way to preserve their tenuous but familiar existence. When she kills a samurai wearing a horrific mask, she sees a potential weapon to scare her daughter-in-law into submission. What the Woman does not see, in the classic "blind spot" of tragedy, is that the mask has its own ideas for moral comeuppance.
Adapted from a Buddhist cautionary fable about faith and mercy, "Onibaba" bursts with meaning, not only due to Shindo’s narrative but also in his cinematic technique. Images, sounds, lighting, even makeup overlap each other in layers, so that even with little or no dialogue the screen seems to almost breathe. The susuki field, alternately undulating, swaying or shuttering, represents female sexuality. Shindo returns to this metaphor throughout the entire film, whether by the textured black and white Cinemascope cinematography of Kiyomi Kuroda, the jazzy, percussion-heavy music score by Hikaru Hayashi or even through the sound effects of cooing pigeons when the daughter-in-law is aroused, running through the grass towards another passionate meeting with Hachi.
However, swirling around all the visual and aural poetry is Otowa’s Woman. Graced with a shock of gray hair straight out of "The Bride of Frankenstein," she oozes menace and eroticism. Half-clothed and sporting some mean eyeliner, she dominates the movie even when she’s not in frame. When hugging a dead tree after being sexually rejected or bargaining with the cave-dwelling fence Ushi (a character similarly trapped in his private Hades), Otowa gives new meaning to the cliché "mother-in-law from Hell." Simultaneously horrifying, erotic, funny and tragic, "Onibaba" plugs into the same magic realism films of the 1950s and 1960s like Masaki Kobayashi’s "Kwaidan" and even Ingmar Bergman’s "The Seventh Seal."
The 2.35 anamorphic transfer could not be better. Contrast and grayscale are properly balanced, resulting in a picture that just bursts with detail. I can only imagine what the DVD authors and compressionists went through with the shots containing literally thousands of blades of grass! Their hard work is to be commended because rarely did I see any artifacts, other than a few instances of aliasing, which owes more to the NTSC standard. Blacks are deep and solid, with even the nighttime scenes exhibiting exceptional shadow delineation and image detail. Grain is evident is some instances, but not to distraction.
The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack performs on par for its age and technical limitations. Hiss and distortion crop up intermittently during the presentation but for the most part, the audio is clean with clear, intelligible dialogue and adequate dynamic range with the score and sound effects.
Criterion created some terrific extras to accompany "Onibaba" the movie. The pearl of the supplements is a new twenty-minute video interview with writer/director Shindo. A stately 92, Shindo recounts with great clarity and authority the genesis and making of the film, explaining at length the film’s symbolism and well as reminiscing about his screenwriting and directorial career, dating back to 1934. Another nice touch is that the interview is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
The introductory note in the "Behind the Scenes" section explains how co-star Kei Sato documented the shoot in silent Super 8 black & white and color. His camera captures the rigors of location shooting, like the multitude of bugs crowding the lights (de rigueur for filming in a swamp), the crew beating the heat during off-days (prefabricated housing was built so that could stay on location), shots of Shindo directing and Otowa in full makeup joking with the crew. Physically, the footage exhibits a lot of wear and surprisingly the color footage has not faded. Heck, I can’t find the Super 8 footage I shot in the early 1980s. Another option in this section is scrolling through storyboards and conceptual doodles of not only scenes but the crew location village.
The theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen with mono sound. (Love that "TohoScope" logo!) A menu note explains the trailer is missing "titles and opticals that are generally present in such previews." Don’t need ‘em here; the montage with music, sound effects and snippets of dialogue more than conveys the atmosphere. While a few speckles and nicks take it down half a notch, I would rate the trailer almost as detailed as the feature. A stills gallery has the usual rundown of publicity, behind the scenes and poster artwork.
The menus themselves are framed with artist interpretations of the characters, with a small bit of creepy animation and sound effects before the main menu.
Criterion still hasn’t forgotten the pleasures of inserts and liner notes. (From what I hear, inserts are slowly becoming a relic of the past, owing primarily to budgetary concerns.) For "Onibaba," a foldout houses an article by film critic Chuck Stephens analyzing the film (entitled "Black Sun Rising"), a new English translation of "A Mask With Flesh Scared A Wife," the original Buddhist story that inspired the film and even a "filmmaker’s statement" (per the back cover) from Shindo himself called "Waving Susuki Fields," which primarily covers the same thematic territory as the video interview.
Kudos to Criterion for giving "Onibaba" such respect on DVD: stellar transfer, clean audio, thoughtful extras. Give it a spin and I guarantee you’ll be thinking about it days after the final fadeout.