Onibaba (鬼婆, literally Demon Hag) is a 1964 Japanese horror film based on a Buddhist parable. Directed by Kaneto Shindo, 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 kill passing samurai and steal their possessions. In a time of civil war, a woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) live in a small hut in a susuki grass swamp. They live 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, returns. He reports that the son was killed. Hachi starts to help the two women to kill. Hachi lusts after the daughter-in-law, who quickly is seduced and starts to sneak out of her hut every night to have sex with him. The mother-in-law learns of the relationship. She first tries to sleep with Hachi and then pleads with him to not take the daughter-in-law away since she cannot kill without her help. One night, while Hachi and the daughter-in-law are together, a lost samurai in a frightening demon mask forces the woman to guide him out of the swamp.
The title translates, I believe, to ‘the hole,’ and an impressive specimen of that particular topographic feature yawns in the middle of Kaneto Shindô’s 1964 Onibaba with the determined gravity of the primary symbol. Not to say that this hole yields its meanings easily. Anyone who’s seen Ringu, or its American counterpart The Ring, knows to what those titles refer – physically or otherwise – by the time the end credits roll. But there was a time when Japanese ghost stories were a more delicately evocative animal, and when, by giving less, their carefully unresolved symbolic meanings offered more.
The premise of Onibaba has the ring of folklore: in feudal Japan, two women – a mother and her daughter-in-law – manage their hardscrabble existence on a marshy plain by luring errant samurai to their deaths and selling off their wear. The bodies are disposed of in the title void, a remarkably deep – possibly bottomless – abyss. Two events unsettle their lives: a male neighbor returns from battle, taking up with the younger woman (technically the wife of the older woman’s son); and the older woman procures from a samurai a peculiar mask (the film’s secondary symbol), an item that soon develops a character of its own.
The undertakings are significant. But what does it all mean? As in Ugetsu, Kenzo Mizoguchi’s uncanny 1953 tale of the supernatural afoot in feudal Japan (and an influence here), Onibaba shows less interest in laying bare its meanings than in offering the occasion for the viewers’ meditations on life, existence (a different thing), and whatever lies below. Shindô’s interests are not all otherworldly, however, and it’s worth noting that Onibaba‘s dabbling in its characters’ carnal life was focused enough to have seemed a preoccupation in its day.
Time enough has passed to qualify the uniquely spare look of Onibaba classic; Kiyomi Kuroda’s black-and-white cinematography haunts as much as the proceedings themselves, particularly in the picture’s eerie nighttime passages. And Hikaru Hayashi’s unnerving score has a fever to it equal to the strangest images on-screen. Criterion’s immaculate restoration does full justice to each; a new video interview with Shindô (he’s now in his 90s, and his filmography includes literally hundreds of titles), incidental footage from the shoot, and a translation of the Buddhist fable that inspired the film are among the extras. Dig in.
Aka The Hole, The Demon, The Ogress, The Witch, Devil Woman.