Is Judge Paul Pritchard a demon or a human being?
Our review of Onibaba: Criterion Collection, published May 17th, 2004, is also available.
"I'm not a demon! I'm a human being!"
Onibaba is a film that anyone with an interest in world cinema will know the name of, and one that I have seemingly held off viewing for years. Perhaps the high regard in which the film is so often held put me of, but I never quite took the plunge. That has all changed now, though, thanks to Eureka releasing Onibaba (Blu-ray) (Region B).
Facts of the Case
Set in a Japan torn apart by civil war, Onibaba is the story of two women struggling to survive. The older of the two women (Nobuko Otawa) waits for her son Kichi's return from battle with his wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura). With the two suffering great hardship while Kichi is away, they have resorted to brutally murdering any samurai who stumble into the seven-foot-high grass fields that surround their village—selling their weaponry and armor for profit. When their neighbor, Hachi (Kei Satto), returns from battle with tragic news about Kichi, not to mention a barely concealed lust for the his widow, the older woman's fear of being left alone to die sees her plot against them.
The first thing that becomes apparent watching Onibaba is the way director Kaneto Shindo refuses to let his film be pegged down to one particular genre. Most of the articles and reviews I had read on the film suggested it to be a horror, but—while there are certainly elements of that here—it is just as much a human drama, very much focused on the lengths one will go to simply to exist. The film is set in a small village, itself surrounded by vast fields of long grass. Yet, despite the outdoor setting, there is an undeniable feeling of being closed in. In one respect this is due to the way the villagers exist in what is a fairly isolated locale; but it is the infrequent reminders of the war raging on not too far away (and seemingly getting closer) that really cements the sense of claustrophobia, and brings into play the film's more morally complex elements.
The two women who we follow throughout the film (we never learn their names beyond the fact that the elder is the mother of a deceased soldier named Kichi, while the younger woman is his widow) have taken to dark means to survive in what is in truth extreme poverty. Their killing of unsuspecting (and usually wounded) samurai who stumble into their village is brutal, though apparently essential for their own survival. It is not revealed what pushed them to such an extreme initially, but it is interesting to note that the older woman—once she has learned of her son's death—uses that as an excuse for their actions, explaining that these soldiers, whether they be allies or enemies, are responsible for his demise and so in turn deserve their fate. This moralizing—however twisted—does at least hint that they know their actions are wrong, even if there is no going back now. Perhaps even more worrying is the way that—despite it never being spoken of—other villagers partake in such activities, suggesting the film represents a class conflict with an ostracized society taking back from those they see as their oppressors.
Although this barbarism is always lurking in the shadows, it is never the sole focus of the film. Indeed, what drives the film is the relationship that develops between Hachi, a soldier who has managed to flee the conflict, and Kichi's young widow. Fearing that this burgeoning relationship will result in her being left alone in her old age, the older woman sets about putting an end to it by any means necessary. It's interesting to note that there is no suggestion of anything resembling love existing between Hachi and the young woman; instead what they share is a more primal urge, which sees the young woman sneak out of her mother-in-law's home for nighttime liaisons.
As the second act draws to a close, the film's more traditional horror elements come into play, as a warrior wearing a demon mask presents himself to the older woman seeking her help. Seeing an opportunity to finally put an end to her daughter-in-law's affair with Hachi, the old woman enacts a vile plot. In this respect it is very easy to see Onibaba as the birthplace of the modern J-horror, as the previously hinted at darkness gives way to something more supernatural. It's pleasing how Shindo leaves so much open for the viewer's own interpretation. Is the warrior a man or is he truly a demon, and does the mask he wears possess supernatural powers? These are very much left unexplained, proving far more satisfying than any conventional conclusion.
Visually, Onibaba is exemplary. Shindo's use of closeups on his leads does more than his words to convey their intentions, and prove to be frequently disturbing. The stark black-and-white imagery certainly works in the film's favor, with some terrifying imagery during the final act benefiting most from this. These images are captured beautifully by what is an excellent 2.35:1 1080p transfer. The picture is sharp, and contains a high level of detail. Individual strands of grass are easily distinguishable thanks to the clarity of the print, which is complemented by deep black levels. The mono (Japanese) soundtrack features clean dialogue, with the option of English subtitles, but doesn't ever really come alive until Hikaru Hayashi's stunning score kicks in.
Eureka's Onibaba (Blu-ray) (Region B) release boasts an excellent selection of extras, with the obvious highlight being a director's commentary track. Joined by actors Jitsuko Yoshimura and Kei Sato, Shindo leads a conversation that is packed with personal insights into the making of the film. Director Alex Cox (Repo Man) delivers a brief video introduction to the film, where he lauds both Shindo and his film. While making Onibaba, actor Kei Sato filmed his experiences, which are presented here as a behind-the-scenes featurette. Though not included with the screener copy sent for review, anyone picking up the Blu-ray release will find a thirty-six-page booklet included in the set, containing essays on the film along with an English translation of the original short Buddhist fable that inspired the film.
While I can't say I loved Onibaba—it does on occasion drag just a little—I found it to be captivating viewing. It won't be for everyone, but for anyone who has been holding out picking the film up, or existing fans who simply wish to upgrade their DVD copies, Onibaba (Blu-ray) (Region B) comes highly recommended.
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Studio: Eureka Entertainment
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