Onibaba Movie Review
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.
The undertakings are significant. But what does it all mean? As in Ugetsu Monogatari, Kenzo Mizoguchi's uncanny 1953 tale of the supernatural afoot in feudal Japan (and an influence here), Onibaba shows less interest in laying bare its meanings than in offering the occasion for the viewers' meditations on life, existence (a different thing), and whatever lies below. Shindô's interests are not all otherworldly, however, and it's worth noting that Onibaba's dabbling in its characters' carnal life was focused enough to have seemed a preoccupation in its day.
Time enough has passed to qualify the uniquely spare look of Onibaba classic; Kiyomi Kuroda's black-and-white cinematography haunts as much as the proceedings themselves, particularly in the picture's eerie nighttime passages. And Hikaru Hayashi's unnerving score has a fever to it equal to the strangest images on-screen. Criterion's immaculate restoration does full justice to each; a new video interview with Shindô (he's now in his 90s, and his filmography includes literally hundreds of titles), incidental footage from the shoot, and a translation of the Buddhist fable that inspired the film are among the extras. Dig in.
Aka The Hole, The Demon, The Ogress, The Witch, Devil Woman.