This new Blu-ray release of Shindô Kaneto's seminal Onibaba from Masters of Cinema is another of their HD upgrades of titles previously released by them on DVD only, and a most welcome one. Onibaba remains to this day one of the most visually (and in its subtle way aurally) seductive films in the history of Japanese cinema, one whose riverside setting, with its isolating fields of tall susuki grass, is as much a character in the film as the three human protagonists.
As I've already covered the film in some detail in my review of the 2005 DVD release, this article will be exclusively focussed on the technical quality of the Blu-ray release. If you want to know more about the film, check out my earlier review here.
I'll freely admit that some films, even a couple in the Masters of Cinema catalogue, do not benefit from a Blu-ray upgrade to the extent you might expect, usually due to the condition of the original material and/or the quality of the previous DVD transfer. If your system is optimised and your Blu-ray or DVD player upscales well, then a decently coded DVD can look almost as impressive as its Blu-ray equivalent if the film or video materials are less than optimum and your screen size not gargantuan.
So how does this new Blu-ray release of Onibaba compare to the previous Masters of Cinema DVD version? Viewing them side-by-side, as is my way with such releases, the difference between the two discs is apparent from the start and frequently striking. You'll find a clear example at the start of chapter 4, an extreme wide shot of Kinchi's unnamed wife washing clothes on the river bank, viewed from across the water (0:23:14 on the Blu-ray, 0:22:28 on the PAL DVD) – on the DVD the detail on the susuki grass that surrounds her is indistinct, whereas on the Blu-ray the grass is crisply and clearly rendered. The sharpness and clarity of detail is even more apparent on the exterior of the women's hut at the start of Chapter 5, where every reed used in its construction can be clearly seen on the HD transfer.
The picture has also undergone further restoration since the DVD release, resulting in a reduction in dust and dirt and the elimination of almost all previously visible damage. This is clearly evident at the start of chapter 11, where the image of the grass being blown by the wind is followed by a wide shot of Kinchi's wife approaching the river bank; not only is the sharpness and level of detail far superior here, but there is no sign of the dust spots and the very visible scratch that adorned the print used for the DVD transfer.
It's also worth noting that the image is brighter on the Blu-ray than on the DVD, which has been achieved without sacrificing the still inky solidity of the black levels or softening the film's sometimes aggressive contrast. This does bring out some detail in darker areas that was previously invisible or hard to make out, but does also push the brighter components of some of the higher contrast shots a tad closer to overexposure, though thankfully without burning out the detail.
The Linear PCM 48Khz mono soundtrack is slightly louder than the Dolby 2.0 mono track of the DVD, but is inevitably subject to the same restrictions in range and occasional pops and crackle. The layered use of sound effects is still very effectively reproduced.
This new disc has the exact same extra features as the previous DVD, which are detailed here. As we don't have a copy of the booklet that ships with this new Blu-ray edition, I'm having to assume the content is the same – certainly the information on the press release ties up with what was present in the DVD booklet. All the extra features are presented at 1080p HD here.
If you don't already own the DVD then this is a no-brainer, particularly given that the excellent extra features from the earlier release have been included here. But even if you do have the DVD, the considerable improvement in the picture quality still makes this an essential purchase. Highly recommended.