The title Onibaba translates as “Demon Woman,” and the 1964 Japanese sexual parable dressed in the tropes of horror films is dark and gruesome, an unflinching look at the extremes people will go to in order to survive. Set in a swamp during a particularly violent period of Japanese history, two women--a girl (Jitsuko Yoshimura) and her mother-in-law (Nobuko Otowa)--are forced to go it alone, killing wayward samurai and tossing their bodies in a deep hole in order to pawn their armor. When a neighbor man, Hachi (Kei Sato), returns from the war and reports that their son/husband was killed trying to escape from battle, the delicate balance of their lives is upset completely. The women’s sole bond has been waiting for the man to return--and now they have nothing.
Knowing she can’t survive alone, the older woman attempts to instill a righteous fear in the girl, using stories of a Buddhist hell to scare her into stopping her midnight dalliances with Hachi. When her measures get more drastic, the players in this twisted scenario end up getting a quick lesson in instant karma.
This gorgeously shot black-and-white film seems impossibly daring for its time. This trio of lost souls lives a primal life, full of blood and sex, and director Kaneto Shindo doesn’t sugarcoat their actions at all. The new transfer triumphantly delivers the deepest black shadows, every eerie nuance of moonlight; additionally, every bloodcurdling scream and sensual squeal comes through in detailed surround sound. Onibaba features a fantastic score by Hikaru Hayashi, sparse at times and rhythmically exciting at others. The producers of the DVD made sure every drumbeat would rattle the viewer’s ribcage.
Extras include a new interview with Shindo, as well as notes and on-set footage from the production. Onibaba was an independent effort, bucking the Japanese studio system. The features give us a glimpse into the difficult communal project. Shooting on a real swamp, the team found themselves at odds with nature, racing against a changing season to complete their film. It makes the quality of their effort all the more impressive knowing the pains it took to bring Onibaba to life.
The only complaint I’d have is with the art direction. The cover art and limited, flash-style animation of the menus are the first from the Criterion Collection that I have genuinely disliked. It looks to me more like a rough for the final product, not the final product itself.