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Classic Japanese Horror Film

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4 ½ stars: Kaneto Shindo's Horrific Tale of Primal Emotions, Dark Eroticism and the Macabre!

  • Jun 13, 2009

ONIBABA (1964) precedes the Japanese classic "Kwaidan". This film is shot in its entirety in black and white, the film is Kaneto Shindo's masterpiece. Based on Buddhist folklore about morality, love and the manifestation of more refined emotions. The film is excellently executed, words, gestures and actions are conveyed with such emotional content that the film may just prove compelling even if it was made as a silent film.

A 45 year old woman (Nobuko Otawa) and a daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) struggle to survive when a war breaks out between feuding clans. Hungry, penniless and desperate, they resort to wanton acts of murder, they prey on lost or wounded samurai, killing them and taking their armor, valuable swords and sells them to a war profiteer (Taiji Tonoyama). The opening act is a grisly depiction of the two women slaughtering two unsuspecting samurai, not exactly a subtle way to begin a tale based on fable. Their lives become intertwined with Hachi (Kei Sato), a neighbor who returns from the field of battle with the news that their husband/son had been killed in combat. Left without a spouse, the daughter-in-law becomes attracted to Hachi, and he with her. What happens next is a frightful, sensual wind of lust, sex, envy, greed and murder…the kind that may catapult the trio into a downward spiral into hell.

"Onibaba" means "Demon Woman", the film is a simple, uncompromising dramatization on how low humanity can sink into to survive. The tale is about escalating intense emotions and passionate interactions(?). The film is excellently structured, the film plays like a morality drama but never once loses its frightening aspect. The film is a tale of lust, jealousy and anger. The main focus of the film is the older woman (Nobuko Otawa) who sees Hachi as a deserter, lazy and may be the cause of her son's death; this man may also ruin the arrangement she has with her daughter-in-law. Her repulsion of Hachi soon becomes hatred as she realizes that Hachi may become the cause of her becoming alone and left to fend for herself. The irony is; the older woman also longs for the touch of a man and the very sight of them embracing ignites a fire of envy, desire and rage that may consume the entire household. There are subtle symbols and metaphors to be had with the film; the blades of grass blowing with a movement to mimic the ocean represents passion and the demonic mask may well be a metaphor to something else. It all depends on how you interpret it.

Narratives aside, the film is a successful combination creepy atmosphere and simple camera work. There are moments that the camera stays still, that it feels almost voyeuristic that time had stopped is a haunting touch. The excellent cinematography gives life to the film's proceedings as well as to its characters. There is a haunting and ghostly, speechless gestures that add to the film's atmosphere. Shindo's direction is almost flawless in expressing the terror that is beginning to take hold of the trio's lives. Shadows are used effectively to convey the schemes and murderous plots that add to the film's moody and atmospheric feeling. If atmosphere is the main strength of a horror film, then this film would be the cream of the crop. The black and white approach actually added to the film's strength (I'm not sure if this was intentional), the bleakness and darkness in the lives of the protagonists are further expressed by the colorless proceedings.

The film is also uninhibited with its portrayal of sexual relations. For a film made in 1964, there are quite a number of long nude scenes by Otawa and Yohimura. Otawa (she became Shindo's wife) is a powerful presence with her gestures and facial mannerisms that exudes lust and rage. Yoshimura is a woman awakened by sexuality and lust, but before that she had that "shocked" characteristic that she exuded instinct. Kei Sato seemed very bestial in his portrayal of Hachi and Tonoyama makes a convincing presence as the sleazy profiteer. Curiously the sex scenes don't feel very titillating, they are erotically charged and very graphic, but it just didn't feel sleazy as one may expect.

The film's main premise may also be touched upon by elements of karma and error in judgment. The mask itself may represent something much more than a cursed object, and may well be a representation of a human being's capacity to hide behind an invisible mask when in the action of doing bad things--hiding one's guilt and manipulating how we want to be seen as. The well itself represents the descent into madness, while the darkness and the bodies themselves may represent the things that may eat away at one's soul--consider the depths of one's conscience. Tossing the bodies into the depths of the well also represents the depths of the hidden unlikable things that one may keep buried inside.

"Onibaba" is a unique experience. While it may lack the raw intensity of modern Japanese horror films, and may not be as visually horrific as modern horror films; it is still refreshing to know that a relic from the past can still endure as one of the best Japanese horror films with its defining moments of the aspects of lust and hatred, humanity‘s raw primal instincts.

Highly Recommended! [4 ½ stars]

Criterion sports an impressive enhanced widescreen transfer with a clear mono track. Subtitles are excellent. The extras contain interviews, making of features, galleries and a booklet about the the parable that inspired the film.


Criterion Dvd Cover

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October 31, 2009
Encountered this cover art many times but never knew much about the material contained within and the 1960s no less?! Wow! Great review as always.
June 19, 2009
Wonderful review Woop. I saw this so long ago that it hardly counts anymore. For that reason its on my NetFlix list as a weekend movie. (Horror and kung fu flix for Wednesday and Bollywood and foreign films for the weekend)
June 19, 2009
yes! can me and Trashie come over? I'll bring "Night of the Lepus"!
June 19, 2009
Okay, but you have to promise to LEAVE NIGHT OF THE LEPUS home. Try something else, like STUDENT BODIES for example.
June 14, 2009
I feel like I am stuck in the movie Multiplicity. :)
June 14, 2009
tell me about it :) How have you been Cdbaker?
June 14, 2009
Hanging in there. Been really slammed at work the last month and working a lot of hours and doing a lot of traveling...get back and get suckered into getting a dog!
June 14, 2009
wow. you know now that you have a dog, you won't be able to travel as much...anyway, glad to see you're back.
June 14, 2009
It's my wife that wanted the dog so when I travel for work she has a companion. It's vacations I'm worried about now.
June 13, 2009
Great review! I would actually purchase more Criterion DVDs if they were a bit more affordable. I have a beer pocket but I would prefer the drink the finest wines. LOL
June 15, 2009
Um, did you have a little trouble posting your comment, man? Ha, now I've got something to give you a hard time about!
June 16, 2009
I love you Orlok!
June 16, 2009
Platonically, I hope. I don't swing that way, not that there's anything wrong with it. ;)
June 16, 2009
Yeah, I somehow don't think that a long distance love affair would work out too well with me being in the south & you way up north bro. Haha. Just kidding. I'd consider myself pathetic if I started scouting the social networking organizations like this for my next date. Love ya but not in the biblical sense dude. ;-0
June 17, 2009
I love yous too!! :P
June 17, 2009
Haha. Much love to you as well Woo!! :-p
June 13, 2009
Great review! I would actually purchase more Criterion DVDs if they were a bit more affordable. I have a beer pocket but I would prefer the drink the finest wines. LOL
June 13, 2009
uh..what happened? Your comment went more than triple posted. I think they're watching us dirty minds LOL! I know Criterion dvds are expensive but they are affordable once they do on sale...I paid only $ 17.99 for this as I can remember. Oh, I go for sake than the movie...LOL!
June 15, 2009
Shit, this comment's on here 8 times. And I thought I was flaky! ;)
June 16, 2009
You thought?? LOL Haha
June 16, 2009
Sorry about the multiple comments. Ha! This computer sometimes sucks though I've rectified that err this morning! Oh, hey Orlok! Yeah, I do want more of the Criterion catalog once they go on sale or maybe I will buy a few through ammie's marketplace. I still want Jane Campion's Sweetie which is a personal favorite of mine.
June 16, 2009
No problem, Bro. I could easily delete the extra comments from my side but right now I enjoy having multiple comments and I left it to you to rectify. I think I may review "Salo" as soon as I get a chance to re-watch it--I have to be in a certain state of mind otherwise I may not be able to stand its gross-out features.
June 16, 2009
Hey bro, you're more than welcome to the multiple comments. LMAO Yeah, I'm ready for the Salo review & I can certainly understand how that one may not be something you cna just watch on any given day. Even so, I really would love to read your take on it as your writing style is dope. ;-)~
June 13, 2009
Wow, you're Criterion Collection collection is getting bigger all the time. I'm truly impressed. Way to go on this review too. Out of curiosity, how many Asian films do you have on DVD?
June 14, 2009
I only own a few Criterion releases--Mackshere I think owns more than I do. Been meaning to review "Eyes Without a Face" but I just can't find the time to watch it again. This is an older review I expanded on, think I posted it back in '07 in ammie. My Asian film collection is big, I would say it takes up 55% of my total collection. Haven't really kept count.
June 15, 2009
Did you hear about the new DVD of Kurosawa's Rashomon? Apparently, the picture has never looked better. By the way, whatever happened to that Yojimbo DVD? LOL.
June 15, 2009
Good that you reminded me. It slipped my mind ever since all the shit that went on the past two months. (y'know what happened) I still have your address, I think. I may send you Sanjuro also, since I've upgraded. Rashomon is in my list of stuff to review. I bet you want me to upgrade that too right? LOL!
June 15, 2009
:) No complaints if you did! By the way, how are all those things going? Hopefully, everything's returning to a state of normalcy (or at least as normal as family life can get).
June 15, 2009
It's getting there. My family has this 40 days, then 90 days thing that they have to remember the death anniversary. It's funny how different cultures do this type of things--we celebrate with food.
June 15, 2009
Who doesn't? Everybody's got to eat after all. My own family doesn't really have any traditions, mainly because we're all diverse (read: extremely divided on theological matters and we don't get along).
June 15, 2009
I know what you mean. Family can get difficult, different beliefs and diiferent attitude. Only food gets us together. Me, personally, if it was me who passed on, I want a viking-like cremation but I'm pretty sure my clan won't allow that unless I put it on my will.
June 15, 2009
That's what I'm going for... the question is who will be the torch bearer? Everyone will be fighting for that job. LOL.
June 16, 2009
Criterion puts out a lot of great stuff but I own so little of it. Don't laugh. I actually rushed out & bought a copy of Double Life Of Veronique when Criterion first released it. This shocks the hell out of people. LOL
June 16, 2009
Wow, some sick humor from the Scotman... who even knew he had it in him? ;)
June 24, 2009
Don't ruin it by being apologetic. :)
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William ()
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Onibaba (film)
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Onibaba (film)
Italian poster for Onibaba Directed by Kaneto Shindō Produced by Toshio Konya Written by Kaneto Shindō Starring Nobuko Otowa
Jitsuko Yoshimura
Kei Sato Music by Hikaru Hayashi
Tetsuya Ohashi Cinematography Kiyomi Kuroda Editing by Toshio Enoki Release date(s) Japan:
November 21, 1964
United States:
February 4, 1965 Running time 103 min. Language Japanese

Onibaba (鬼婆?, literally Demon Woman) (1964) is a Japanese horror film based on a Buddhist parable. Directed by Kaneto Shindō, the film is set in rural Japan in the fourteenth century and features Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura as a woman and her daughter-in-law who attack and kill passing samurai, strip them of their valuable armor and possessions, and dispose of the bodies in a deep pit.

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[edit] Story

During the Nanboku-chō period, a woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in a small hut in a susuki grass swamp. They make a living by killing samurai, disposing of their bodies in a deep pit and selling their armor and weapons. A neighbor named Hachi (Kei Sato) who went to war with the woman's son/daughter-in-law's husband returns and reports that he was killed in combat. Hachi starts to help the two women to kill passersby and take their possessions. Hachi begins blatantly ...

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Director: Kaneto Shindô
Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller
Release Date: November, 1964
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Runtime: 103 minutes
Studio: Kindai Eiga Kyokai, Tokyo Eiga Co Ltd.
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