There are many proverbs or common phrases that have worked their way into the moral fabric of society. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.” “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” “Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.” “Don’t start none, won’t be none.” That last one is from rapper Killshot, but seems the most appropriate way to work our way into writer/director’s Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba, an adaptation of a Buddist fable “A Mask with Flesh Scared a Wife.” According to the liner notes, the fable has been translated in various ways, but it’s this version which Shindo extended to tell a story of poverty, sex, and violence in fourteenth century Japan. Though the film released in 1964, there is a warning to be headed within even now: it matters not what the Lords and Leaders of the land fight over if the people are ignored and left to rot in the process. Joining The Criterion Collection, Onibaba can be explored by audiences new and old via commentary, interviews, and more, but do be mindful which edition you pick up as the bonus features are entirely dependent on the format you select.
In the farmlands of feudal Japan live an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her young daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) who murder any soldiers who come through their land so as to sell their armaments for food. Their desperate existence is shaken further when a neighbor, Hachi (Kei Sato), returns from his conscription with news of the young woman’s husband, shaking up the delicate equilibrium the two women have established to keep themselves safe and fed. As loneliness turns to lust and rage, both women begin to make choices that will forge a path to destruction.
If you’re unfamiliar with the original fable, the crux of it is that the young woman wants to study at a Buddhist temple but the older woman doesn’t want her to. In order to keep her from going at night, the older woman adorns a family demon mask and tries to scare the younger woman into going home. It doesn’t work and the older woman has to ask the younger for help getting the mask off. Shindo takes this tale and extends it into a violent and turbulent world in which these two women have few choices in order to survive and every choice is about fulfilling a necessary need. There is little time for sentimentality or frivolous action, something which the opening sequence brutally makes clear as we first watch the women kill two men, then go to the local merchant, Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama), who not only underpays but tries to use that vulnerability to solicit for sex. The women take what they have, eat ravenously, then pass out without a word uttered. Living is about surviving and, if one is awake, one is trying to survive. This is a grim lifestyle and one that is foisted upon them as they are considered little more than fodder for the greater society of Japan. This is, of course, how things have often happened in patriarchal societies when war comes in: the women are forced to take care of the day to day, often left to fend for themselves in a society which undervalues them (and there are some strange similarities to now as the United States, in particular, tries to figure out how to navigate a viral war without the financial means to make conscription by way of capitalism easier). Sudden weather shifts destroyed the crops that the women usually harvest, leaving them with few choices as to how to survive. Here, they opt to kill samurai, a political protest statement if there ever was one, as they see them as equally responsible for the war happening around them, the war that took their son/husband. That, then this man, Hachi, comes in and disturbs their system is too much for the older woman. She has even less now without her daughter-in-law, especially since her age makes her less desirable to men, so her options seem even narrower than before. That she would try to frighten her daughter-in-law into complacency is the act of a desperate person driven further. That this choice leads to further misery just goes to show that it’s not just those who live by the sword that die by it.
Speaking of choices and consequences, make sure you pay close attention to which version of Onibaba you pick up as the Blu-ray and DVD editions are different. First, the covers have different artwork (the Blu-ray cover by Edward Kinsella is displayed at the bottom of the review). Second, their special features are different, with materials segregated by format. I haven’t noticed this with prior releases, so I don’t know if it’s a licensing issue or a shift from Criterion. (For example, the recently announced January 2022 releases are either 4K UHD/Blu-ray or Blu-ray/DVD, but not all three.) The Blu-ray contains two pieces of supplemental material, neither of which are new for this release, while the DVD contains only a stills gallery. The Blu-ray release is also the only edition to include the linear notes, themselves including an essay, a 2001 director’s statement, the version of the fable which inspired Shindo, restoration details, and more. Blu-ray remains the more common format for home viewing, so most purchasers will likely snag this edition over the DVD, but it’s important to note the differences before making the purchase.
For those interested in the technical side of the release, the liner notes explain that presented ratio is in keeping with the original 2:39:1 ratio and that the HD digital transfer was created from a scan of a 35mm fine-grain print and was restored by Criterion. The sound for the film was remastered from an optical soundtrack print. Considering the age of the film and the monaural sound, the remaster isn’t as striking as the metaphor of the images themselves. One doesn’t expect a film from the 1960s to look like its released now, so don’t mistake my description for a complaint. Being a black-and-white picture, the remaster allows for sharper blacks and brighter whites, enabling Shindo’s meaning to be easier to understand.
Having heard a great deal about Onibaba over the years, even finding it on Guillermo del Toro’s Top 10 Criterion list, an expectation formed of something dark and sinister. What we get isn’t as terrifying as one might expect or even as graphically sexual, given the erotic-horror label that accompanies Onibaba; instead, I found a film interested not in the morals of murder or sex, but in human need and desperation, where one doesn’t care of the harm done to another as long as basic needs are met. What those needs are and who gets hurt, well, that’s entirely a matter of perspective. For the older woman, she wants to survive more than she wants love, though she does ache for that a bit, too. For the younger woman, the longing to be loved matters more than survival, at the very least because the act of loving (i.e. sex) does come with a modicum of assistance with survival. For one to get what they want, the other must be hurt. In trying to preserve the status quo, both suffer. It’s here that, once more, I can’t help but think of today and all the victims of a pandemic that didn’t have to be. In trying to preserve the status quo, more harm comes than in doing what’s right and working together to have it all. Fear is truly the killer of life.
Onibaba Blu-ray Special Features:
- High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- Audio commentary from 2001 featuring director Kaneto Shindo and actors Kei Sato and Jitsuko Yoshimura
- Interview from 2003 with Shindo (21:16)
- On-location footage shot by Sato (37:47)
- An essay by film critic Elena Lazic, a 2001 director’s statement by Shindo, and a version of the Buddhist fable that inspired the film
- Blu-ray cover illustration by Edward Kinsella (pictured below: left)
- Optimal image quality: RSDL dual-layer edition
Onibaba DVD Special Features:
- High-definition digital transfer, with restored image and sound and enhanced for widescreen televisions
- Stills gallery featuring production sketches and promotional art
- Optimal image quality: RSDL dual-layer edition
- DVD cover by Lucien S. Y. Yang (pictured below: right)
Available on Blu-ray and DVD October 5th, 2021.
For more information, head to The Criterion Collection’s Onibaba website.