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Onibaba: The Criterion Collection

Woe betide the deserting samurai who flee into the tall susuki grass near the shambling hut of the nameless women played by Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura in Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba (1964), for their lives have become all but forfeit so that these tenacious ladies may preserve theirs. Forced to live as murderous scavengers while the man of the house — the older woman's son and the younger's husband — is off fighting in an unspecified war, these women have established a strange, symbiotic relationship that suddenly is threatened when their shifty-eyed male neighbor, Hachi (Kei Sato), returns AWOL from battle. If Hachi is to be believed, the ladies' son/husband was killed in an ambush as the men struggled to return home. Neither woman really trusts Hachi, who, on the surface, seems all too capable of having murdered their beloved, but their suspicions soon fall away as he reawakens their long dormant sexual desire. Obviously, Hachi prefers the more attractive younger woman, who is all too willing to reciprocate his lustful feelings; thus, immediately upsetting their relationship, which is further complicated by their continuing need for the other's assistance in maintaining their savage livelihood. A mischievous perverting of an old Buddhist parable, Shindo turns a premise ripe for delirious melodrama right on its ear with Onibaba, reimagining the tale as a deeply carnal horror film. Supposedly set in fourteenth century feudal Japan, Shindo's haunting picture has a timeless, almost post-apocalyptic feel — suggesting, through its marshy, overgrown setting, a lushly verdant vision of hell. Favoring long, evocative takes of the wildly flowing tall grass, Shindo conjures and sustains an extreme disquietude complemented by a tangible eroticism established through the tangled, sweaty limbs of Yoshimura and Sato. Onibaba is an unusually frank picture for the early 1960s. In fact, the unabashed nudity and frenzied couplings would probably raise eyebrows even today. But the movie chiefly derives its power from its more horrific elements, the most vivid being a gaping, seemingly bottomless hole in the earth into which the women deposit their stripped prey (horror buffs might be inclined to view this element as a tangential inspiration for the cult classic The Pit). One of the film's more memorable sequences finds Otowa descending into this abyss to retrieve a demon mask from a fresh kill (presaging Ringu, perhaps), which she cleverly uses to deter Yoshimura from her nocturnal couplings with Sato. Even more fascinating is the manner in which the significance of the mask — at first a symbol of vanity — is transmogrified by the motive for which Otawa utilizes it. Onibaba is filled with these odd thematic imprecisions, but rather than rankle, they actually heighten the film's inexplicable seductiveness. By the time the film reaches its startlingly abrupt conclusion, its elusiveness has become an unexpected attribute that allows it to linger in memory as one tries to make sense of its fuzzily stated intent. That the film winds up working better as a mood piece than as a goofily conflicted pro-sex tract doesn't detract too much from one's enjoyment of Shindo's unique achievement; after all, no one's wedded the Val Lewton aesthetic with Ingmar Bergman more successfully since. Then again, no one's really tried, have they? The Criterion Collection presents Onibaba in a beautifully restored anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with terrific Dolby Digital 1.0 audio. Extras include a brand-new interview with the 93-year-old Kaneto Shindo (21 min.), a collection of super-8 footage shot on set by Kei Sata (37 min.), a gallery of production sketches and photos, an essay by critic Chuck Stephens, an English translation of the parable which inspired the picture, and a "Filmmaker's Statement" from Shindo. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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