Hisao Itoya

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Onibaba Review


Very Good
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.

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