Criterion Review: ONIBABA (1964)

A classic of Japanese horror receives a long-awaited upgrade to Blu-ray

During a prolonged period of intense Civil War, two unnamed women living in a vast marshland take to brutal yet necessary methods of survival. The pair are far apart in age; the younger woman (Jitsuko Yoshimura) is married to the older woman’s (Nobuko Otowa) son, who’s presumed dead in battle. Reliant on each other to survive, however, they equally bear the burdens of their nomadic way of life. They hunt and fish. They maintain their ramshackle hut, set amidst towering reeds and impenetrable mud. They barter with lecherous men who offer food and liquor in exchange for a night with them.

But unwilling to sacrifice their bodies in this fashion (or, in the Older Woman’s case in the men’s hungry eyes, no longer able to), the women sacrifice others. If a Samurai crosses their path, the women strike, murdering them in cold blood and scavenging their belongings before dumping them down a bottomless pit. Much like his other films Kuroneko and The Naked Island, director Kaneto Shindo explores here the primal physicality of human hunger, both when it comes to literal survival and other reptilian needs. With Onibaba, he creates a frenzied pressure cooker of desire: where carnal longing finds itself manifested in both the natural and supernatural world.

While billed as one of Japan’s best Horror films, much of the terror of Onibaba is rooted in the evils we’re capable of rather than external spirits or demons. Like The Naked Island, there is a ritualization to the women’s suffering, their Sisyphean trudging through the muck of the marshland suggesting a prolonged toil regardless of whether it’s wartime or peace in the valleys beyond. Humans aren’t made to suffer, as brief moments of respite between the two reflect, but the harsh conditions of their environment make it necessary. One of those brutal factors is their role as women in a medieval men’s world, where killing Samurai and selling their garb is the lesser of two evils compared to having to sleep with them in order to survive. The film’s production and sound design beautifully evoke the perpetually noisy emotional muck of this world, with a fetishistic focus on the endlessly whipping reeds and primordial ooze of the mud and rivers surrounding their huts. Every step feels like an ordeal, and every bit of propped-up lodging the result of hours of labor. Likewise, the thrumming of pigeons and shaking of grass reflects the never-ending racing minds of the characters, who by circumstance are kept in fight-or-flight mode at all times.

When they learn from neighboring Hachi (Kei Sato) that the Older Woman’s son/Younger Woman’s husband has been killed, nothing else socially ties the two women together aside from their mutually-beneficial serial murder streak. The Younger Woman is seduced by Hachi–and learns she can live independently of her mother-in-law once more. Likewise, the Older Woman realizes just how much she’s lost: she cannot kill their Samurai prey without her daughter-in-law’s aid. At a crucial moment, though, the Older Woman is successful…and her latest victim provides a masked new opportunity to prevent her daughter-in-law from falling permanently into Hachi’s clutches. However, Supernatural forces are now at play, enacting karmic justice for all of the actions of the characters in Onibaba (which translates to “Devil Woman”).

This spooky turn in the plot comes surprisingly late in the film’s runtime compared to Shindo’s later Kuroneko, which sees its own mother/daughter-in-law pairing becomes vengeful spirits right off the bat. However, this shocking development feels just as much of an organic part of the story as this other entry in Shindo’s filmography. In a world so beset by vengeance and greed, who’s to say that the cosmic repercussions of such grim necessity can’t continue on into the next life? Where Onibaba excels in adapting this Buddhist folklore, though, and why it feels so naturally ingrained in the story, is how Shindo’s karmic justice for his characters doesn’t feel like a total judgment of their behavior. The Older Woman’s mischievous plot to ensnare her daughter-in-law for good is comparable to the Younger Woman’s abandonment of her elders. Likewise, both women’s slaying of the Samurai in their path feels not just like a welcome alternative to their suppliance to the men surrounding them, but a deserved retribution against the men’s advances and a primal defense of what agency they have left. The supernatural appearance of the mask, then, feels like a sense of justice from beyond the grave–of the Samurai who did nothing but cross these women’s path, whose murders (while necessary from the Women’s point of view) were still sudden and deserving of vengeance from the Samurai’s viewpoint.

A long-awaited upgrade since Criterion began issuing DVDs in the later end of 2008, Onibaba has finally received a Blu-ray to add to collections of Kaneto Shindo completists, horror aficionados, and all other sorts of Criterion collectors. This edition not only ports over the special features from the 2004 DVD release, but includes for the first time an Audio Commentary with Kaneto Shindo, Kei Sato, and Jitsuko Yoshimura, as well as a new essay by film critic Elena Lazic.


Criterion presents Onibaba in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio with a 1080p HD transfer sourced from a scan of a 35mm fine-grain print restored by the Criterion Collection. Accompanying the transfer is an LPCM monaural Japanese audio track, remastered from an optical soundtrack print.

While sourced from the same master as Criterion’s original DVD release, this new Blu-ray is a step up in visual clarity, with the undulating reeds of the marshland and beads of sweat on the characters’ brows all individually defined. Kiyomi Kuroda’s masterful black-and-white cinematography is best represented in Onibaba’s stark tableaux, with black levels well-delineated especially in a sequence of the Younger Woman and Hachi struggling, lit up in white light against the murky darkness of the reeds. The monaural audio track dutifully showcases the film’s experimental sound design, which was surprisingly all dubbed and created in post-production out of necessity due to the harsh diegetic sounds on location. Sparse dialogue, the shrieks of the dead, thundering drums, and the sleek whispers of swaying reeds all have moments to shine throughout.

Special Features

  • Audio Commentary: This 2001 archival track featuring director Kaneto Shindo and actors Kei Sato (Hachi) and Jitsuko Yoshimura (Younger Woman) is full of amusing on-set anecdotes including constructing a prefab building for the cast and crew to lodge together on the marshland, biweekly escapes to Tokyo, the grueling realism faced by the crew in filling to-scale marsh huts with scorching studio lighting, and the widely popular legacy Shindo’s film has received in the decades since its premiere.
  • Kaneto Shindo: This 21-minute 2003 interview with the late director of Onibaba contextualizes the film in his ultimately 48-film career, the deliberately sparse nature of his adaptation of the original Buddhist fable, the immoral necessities faced by the characters in wartime, and the dynamic relationship the film’s cinematography and natural production design have to the inner turmoil of the characters.
  • On-Location Footage: 37 minutes of black-and-white and color footage captured by actor Kei Sato including the long journey through the Japanese countryside to the film’s set, cast and crew meals, the confined quarters shared by all when performing their duties, and how all spent their leisure time in between takes.
  • Trailer for Onibaba’s Japanese theatrical release.
  • Booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Elena Lazic, a 2001 director’s statement by Kaneto Shindo, and a translated version of the Buddhist fable that inspired Onibaba.

Onibaba is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

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