A fitting tribute to the late director Kaneto Shindō, who sadly passed away in May of last year at the age of 100, this week’s Masters of Cinema series’ Blu-ray rerelease of 1964 Japanese drama Onibaba (The Demoness) is every bit as bountiful and lush as the swaying susuki grass fields found within. A heady blend of dark psychosexuality and 14th century period authenticity lies in wait, with Shindō’s film still rightly revered for its pioneering depiction of both brutal, bloody violence and searing on-screen sexuality, optimised by its two female leads – the cold-eyed Nobuko Otowa and the nubile Jitsuko Yoshimura.
Driven into poverty by the departure of their soldiering son/young husband, a mother and daughter-in-law team scratch out a pitiful existence by murdering lost samurai deserters of an on-going civil war, in turn selling their armour and weapons for bags of millet at a local merchant. Informed of the demise of their long-departed next of kin by the uncouth Hachi (Kei Satō), the women’s dire situation starts to look evermore bleak. Worse still, when the newly-widowed Yoshimura begins to fall for Hachi’s bestial charms, the spear-wielding duo’s blood-soaked partnership must face its greatest test.
Independently produced by Shindō’s own production company, Kindai Eiga Kyōkai, to avoid Japanese state censorship, Onibaba is an oft-callous, yet utterly spellbinding tale of absent morality and physical imprisonment. Bound to their fragile earthly bodies and slaves to said receptacles’ need for nourishment of many varieties, the two women rely on one another to make kill after kill, the only way they can possibly survive in age where bloodshed is a common occurrence. Following suite with a handful of his contemporaries, Shindō even evokes Macbeth-like undertones, with horses giving birth to calves and ghostly ‘oni’ (demons) seemingly stalking the grasslands for sorrowful sinners.
Key to Onibaba’s timeless appeal with international audiences is both Kiyomi Kuroda’s Blue-Ribbon winning cinematography (all devilish susuki, shot on location, and haunted visages) and Hikaru Hayashi memorable drummed score, augmented by jazz techniques and the chilling screams of butchered samurai. As with any Masters of Cinema rerelease, both have been refined to near-perfection for this UK Blu-ray premiere, with further extras coming in the form of a new 1080p HD transfer, 40 minutes of 8mm location footage shot by actor Satō and a 36-page booklet featuring essays on the film.
Worth purchasing for Otowa’s harrowing, tormented central turn alone, Shindō’s DIY horror deserves its place not only within Eureka’s growing Masters of Cinema catalogue, but also as one of Japanese cinema’s key post-war texts. Enrapturing and unnerving in equal measure, Onibaba remains a deeply evocative, unashamedly erotic allegory of societal meltdown.