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The face behind the mask
A UK region 2 / US region 1 comparative review of ONIBABA by Slarek
 

The tall grass. Everyone who has ever seen Shindo Kaneto's Onibaba always remembers the tall grass. Hauntingly composed in the scope frame, it seems to be ever watchful, like an enchanted wood in a dark fairy tale. And like such woods, it houses a deadly secret. Shindo was specific about the use of the susuki grass in which much of his extraordinary film is set, seeing it as a metaphor for feudal Japan and an emotional barometer for the characters. But it also provides a strangely non-specific but richly atmospheric setting for this horror-tinged drama, isolating the characters from the world outside and providing a level of abstraction that is both unsettling and poetic.

As a teenage film student I first stumbled across Onibaba on TV, late on a Friday night in a slot given over to showing key works of World Cinema. Despite the cropped print and the idiotically small screen size (I was a student, after all), I was left stunned by what I had seen. None of my classmates had caught it, and my attempts to explain to them just why I had found it so affecting fell on cynical ears. I mean, try telling them about the grass and what do you get? A laugh and the word "grass" thrown back at you in a voice laced with sarcasm. "Shots of long grass...sure." It was only years later, when I finally saw the film in its correct scope framing and on a very large screen indeed, that I realised just how beautiful these images were. But try telling this to my fellow students back then. Given their cynicism, I dared not mention the half-naked females, not if I wanted to avoid the obvious "Oh NOW we know why you liked it" response. But that's another thing that everyone remembers. The two lead actresses – both attractive women – are topless for key parts of the film, and one of them is completely naked at one point. On top of that there is sex and a red-hot eroticism that few films from anywhere have come close to matching since – watching the film again on Eureka's excellent new DVD I still believe this to be true. And remember, it was first released back in 1964, before the sexual revolution had even touched western cinema. Well, when I say released, I'm not talking about the UK, where it was refused a certificate by the BBFC and was only passed with 'X' classification (remember that?) four years later after cuts were made. But the nudity and eroticism are no boundary-pushing gimmick but an essential part of why Onibaba is such seductive and exhilarating cinema, not just in its celebrated audio-visual achievements or its boldness, but in its emotional power and its ability to get right under your skin and creep the hell out of you.

I remain convinced that any real film fan would only need to see the opening sequence to be sold on the rest of the film. Following an Eraserhead-like introduction to a deep hole whose significance will later become clear, the scope screen is filled with an expanse of long, gently waving susuki grass, into which stumble two battle-scarred samurai. This is feudal era Japan, the time of the warring states, and the men have fled a not-too-distant battle and are being hunted by horse-mounted warriors. As their pursuers head off, the two men continue to make their way through the grass in a mesmerising, semi-abstract wide shot, a moving action painting in which their presence is identified only by the movement of the plants they disturb in passing. Exhaustion finally prompts them to rest for a moment, but before they can recover they are killed by spears thrust through the grass by invisible attackers. As they slowly emerge from hiding, the killers are revealed not to be the horsemen we are expecting but two peasant women, who check that their prey are dead and then proceed to strip them of their weapons, their armour and their clothing with the sort of speedy and determined proficiency that suggests they have done this many times before. The women then drag the bodies to the hole we were shown at the start of the film and unceremoniously toss them in, then return to their hut with the spoils of their kill. There they grab a few mouthfuls of food and sake and, tired from their endeavours, lie down on the floor of their hut to rest. It's an astonishingly confrontational and arresting opening, which, like those in Shindo's Naked Island and Kuroneko, is played out without dialogue, the sparse sounds of nature and activity only disrupted during the disposal of the bodies when Hikaru Kayashi's mesmerisingly tribal percussion kicks in. Of course it's all very well telling you this, but you should see and hear it...

Onibaba is initially a story of survival in times of chaos and desperation. The two women – mother and wife to the unseen Kichi, who was hauled off to war – are unable to feed themselves after the failure of their crops and have taken to hunting down wounded samurai who have strayed from the battlefield and trading the spoils of their kills for food and drink. But the story shifts gear with the arrival home of Kichi's friend Hachi bearing the news that Kichi has been killed. Hachi has lost his taste for battle and returns to his own nearby hut, but is soon making advances to Kichi's widow, whose own sexual longings eventually send her gleefully into his arms. This angers the mother, who believes that Hachi is lying about her son's death. She attempts to dissuade her daughter-in-law from seeing Hachi, but it soon emerges that she has desires of her own and wants him for herself. The trouble is, he's not remotely interested, and what began as a story of survival and those at the bottom of the social stratum becomes a potent examination of lust, need, frustration and jealousy.

All three of the protagonists have had to live by their wits and share a survival instinct, which manisfests in sometimes surprising fashion. As Hachi and the two women part company at the riverside, two fighting samurai stumble into the waters; not wanting to reveal their secret, the women watch on anxiously as one man defeats the other and then struggles to their bank for help, only to be unexpectedly speared by Hachi, who urges the women to go after the other warrior before he gets away, something they do with ruthless efficiency. Later, in one of the film's most startling moments, the two women are collecting water when they spot a dog running through the grass, which in the space of a few brutally efficient seconds of screen time they chase down, kill, and hungrily eat.

The nakedness, while at first disarming, is simultaneously erotic and unglamorous – the women sit, stand, and lie on the floor of their hut as if the camera were simply not there. But the eroticism constantly underscores even the most everyday actions, a charged and tangible embodiment of the lust and desires of both women that is communicated through a canny use of lighting, framing, sound and body language, with the oppressive heat of summer linked to the uncontrollable fires of passion. Of course, the very naturalism of these scenes lends them an element of voyeurism, which itself has erotic overtones, but also mirrors the frequently voyeuristic actions of the characters themselves. All three are repeatedly shown observing each other under the cover of the grass: the mother and daughter-in-law both secretly watch each other through the grass walls of their hut; both women are scrutinized by Hachi as they collect water; and the daughter retreats to the cover of the grass to see what Hachi does after throwing a rock through his door as an initiation to mating. A while later the daughter and Hachi are enviously spied on by the mother, whose sexual frustration then explodes in an eye-openingly overt use of Freudian imagery, as she walks away from the hut in which the two are coupling, clutches desperately at her own breasts and wraps her arms and legs longingly around the trunk of a barren tree, and the camera drifts up to emphasise its phallic connotations. Oh I'll just bet the BBFC loved that back in 1964.

The swaying grass is linked to every aspect of the story and to the shifting emotional states of the characters. The passionate need of the daughter's lust-fueled dashes to her lover are given voice through the rhythmic rustle as her feet cut through the grass (evocatively underscored by the cooing of pigeons). Later, with the appearance of what the daughter believes to be a demon, it becomes altogether more sinister, beckoning her forward and yet eerily threatening, her running accompanied by brief close-ups in which the image of the grass flicks to negative and is lashed by rain.

It is with the nocturnal arrival of a mysterious wandering samurai, his face obscured by a demonic mask, that the tone shifts again, and the film moves into the creepily supernatural territory that so rattled Exorcist director William Friedkin (the mask is said to have been a major influence on the demonic face used in his seminal film). The mother's pragmatic approach to killing the samurai gives way to a sense of brutal justice, an act of revenge for the death of her son, but she has to literally tear the mask from the defeated man's face, which he claimed was kept hidden because of its captivating beauty but is in fact blighted by unsightly sores.

As the mother employs the mask to frighten her daughter-in-law away from Hachi, the suggestion of a paranormal influence is always underscored by a rational alternative. While the mother talks of demons, Hachi dismisses the idea not just of malevolent spirits but of the very existence of Buddha, and the suggestion that the mask carries with it a curse could simply be a matter of biological infection. Whichever explanation you go for, though, the final scene is a grotesque stunner, a sequence that provides no pat resolutions but which powerfully brings to a head and ultimately reverses the deteriorating relationship between the two women, as the mother's own despair at what she has become is externalised and the previously subservient daughter-in-law finds she is able to exercise power after all. As the two flee once again through the grass, neither is aware of just what they have lost, of what fate has finally handed out to them.

Essentially a three-hander with brief guest appearances, the lead actors are all just terrific, deftly combining a believably workaday naturalism with the theatrics of emotional conflict. As the mother, Shindo's much-used leading lady (and wife) Otowa Nobuko invests ferocious purpose into every glance and sharply delivered rebuff, while as the young daughter-in-law, relative newcomer Yoshimura Jitsuko has an almost boyish pragmatism and disregard for traditional cultural feminine niceties, but in an instant can explode in almost predatory desire and passion. Completing the trio is Sato Kei as Hachi, deliberately made to look gruff to emphasise the animal quality of his sexual frustration (vividly realised in a scene in which he thrashes madly around in the susuki fields), never overplaying a role that could so easily have been rendered as cartoonishly sleazy and lecherous.

Onibaba remains one of Japanese cinema's most successful and widely appreciated exports and deservedly so. It's electrifying film-making, showcasing some masterful camera placement and movement, disarmingly modern but unflashy editing, inspired blocking for camera (the mother's confrontation with Hachi after her failed seduction is an extraordinary but nonetheless almost invisible ballet, in which the actors repeatedly swap places and yet are always perfectly framed), and an awe-inspiring use of the monochrome scope frame, including some of the most convincing and atmospheric day-for-night shots I've ever seen. But it's also utterly compelling drama, a heady mixture of social commentary, political subtext, eroticism, horror and conflicting emotions, and on every count lives up to its reputation as a cinematic great.

sound and vision

Onibaba was released in the US by Criterion back in March of last year, and though some have claimed that the transfer on that disc is a little soft I have always disagreed and found the print largely impressive, with sharpness, contrast and black levels generally very good, though dust spots and occasional scratches were more prevalent than on most of their other Japanese cinema releases of the past couple of years. Having Criterion to go up against is an intimidating prospect for any distributor, but the transfer on Eureka's Masters of Cinema region 2 DVD of Onibaba not only equals the Criterion one on almost every score, it actually has the edge in terms of shadow detail and brightness, the Criterion print being a tad darker. Black levels are more consistent on the Criterion disc, but only just – there are two or three interior night scenes when black gives way to dark grey on the Eureka disc, but otherwise the transfer is terrific – sharp, detailed, with contrast and black levels bang on. The dust spots are also present here, but the print used for the Eureka disc appears to be in slightly better shape than the Criterion disc. So on transfer quality, the Eureka disc is a definite winner.

The sound on the Eureka disc is mono 2.0 has a few minor pops and crackles, while the mono 1.0 track Criterion disc is virtually clean. Otherwise both showcase Shindo's excellent use of sound effects and layering well. For the pop-free soundtrack, Criterion just have the edge here.

extra features

Criterion are renowned for the volume and quality of extras on many of their releases, but also have a fair number, usually lower priced, that are very light on special features, and Onibaba is one such disc. The Eureka disc is part of their Masters of Cinema series, and a companion to their other Kaneto Shindo releases, Naked Island and Kuroneko.

An interesting and informative inclusion on the Criterion disc is a video interview with Shindo Kaneto (21:07), recorded for this release in 2003. Shindo talks briefly about his early days in the film industry and the setting up of his own production company Kindai Eiga Kyokai, but mainly concentrates on Onibaba, and especially on the film's handling of sexual desire, though also covers the decision to shoot in black-and-white and scope, and the metaphoric role of the susuki grass in the film. The interview is shot on video and is anamorphic 16:9.

The Eureka disc, however, scores seriously over the Criterion one with the inclusion of a commentary track featuring director Shindo Kaneto and actors Sato Kei (Hachi) and Yoshimura Jitsuko (the daughter-in-law), recorded in Japan in 2000 and subtitled in English for this DVD. For fans of the film, this is an enthralling track, with the three participants reminiscing like old friends, occasionally talking all at the same time. Plenty of information about the shoot itself is provided, including the problems of living and filming on a marshland location in summer, especially having to deal with the insects, which were drawn by their lights at night and would fly into the actors' mouths when they were attempting to deliver their lines. They even devised a trap to lure and kill them – "There wasn't much to do at night," recalls Shindo, "so we passed the time cremating insects." Discussion on the thinking behind individual scenes is rare, and though some very interesting technical information is provided, much of the talk is enjoyably anecdotal. The nudity issue does inevitably get covered – at one point all three seem to get stuck in a memory loop over one issue – with Yoshimura both concerned at her complete nakedness in one scene and impressed by how good both her and Sato's bodies looked back then. Particularly engaging is how humble both Shindo and Sato are about their respective skills, Sato suggesting that acting is merely reading lines that others have written and following another's direction, while Shindo observes that "a director orders people about, but doesn't actually do it himself."

The subtitles for the commentary are very good, if sometimes (often necessarily, given the speed and overlap of the chatter) providing an annotated version of what is being said. On two occasions a direct translation is not supplied as the three engage in very brief discussions on Japanese wordplay and etymology.

The next extra can be found on both the Criterion and the Eureka discs, 40 minutes of 8mm footage shot on location by Sato Kei. Framed 4:3 and inevitably lacking in fine detail and sharpness and with variable brightness and contrast, the film also has a fair share of damage, but this is easily outweighed by its historical value and intriguing look behind the scenes of the shoot, including the insect infestation and cremation discussed in the Eureka commentary. A mixture of colour and black-and-white footage, the frame rate adjustment from 18fps to the 30fps required for NTSC video causes some blurring on movement on the Criterion disc, but this is made worse by a probable NTSC to PAL conversion on the Eureka disc, which also has a small degree of colour grain interference on the black and white sequences. Quality wise, the Criterion disc wins on this one, but the content is identical and the important thing is that it's there.

Both discs also feature the original trailer (2:15), which is presented anamorphic 2.35:1 on both discs, and apart from a shower of dust spots over the opening is in very good shape.

Also on both discs is a gallery, but the content differs. The Criterion disc features 24 pages of drawings, still, storyboards, posters and programme extracts, all close to full screen. The Eureka disc has 39 promotional stills, 4 pictures from what looks to be the US premiere and 3 pages of various posters, again at near full screen. Both sets are interesting and this one rates as a draw.

The Eureka disc has an introduction by director and Japanese film enthusiast Alex Cox (6:03). Once again Cox provides an interesting overview of the film, and discusses its relationship to Shindo's less commercial Naked Island.

The Eureka disc also comes with one of their excellent 24-page booklets, which contains a new essay on the film by Doug Cummings, a film-maker's statement entitled Waving Susuki Fields by Shindo Kaneto, a reprint of the Buddhist fable A Mask with Flesh Scared a Wife on which the film is loosely based, and the second part of Joan Mellen's interview with the director (parts 1 and 3 are in the booklets supplied with Naked Island and Kuroneko respectively). The Criterion disc comes not with a booklet but with fold-out sleeve notes, but these are no slouch either, containing a new essay, Black Sun Rising, by Asian cinema scholar Chuck Stephens, and two inclusions also sound in the Eureka booklet, A Mask With Flesh Scared a Wife and Waving Susuki Fields. The Eureka booklet wins on presentation and the interview.

summary

OK, I'm partisan here, but for my money Onibaba is marvelous cinema, utterly compelling as drama, as horror, and as a true representation of erotic desire, but I also admire it for its technical brilliance, which was achieved on a small budget under difficult conditions by a dedicated and talented cast and crew at their creative best. As for which DVD to go for, well the Criterion disc is a good one, but there's no two ways about it, the Masters of Cinema release beats it hands down – the transfer is superior, it has a fine commentary track and includes the best extra from the Criterion disc and some of the key material from its sleeve notes. If you don't already own the film then this is the one to buy, but even if you do the commentary has to be a draw. Nice one, Eureka.

 


The Japanese convention of surname first has been used for all Japanese names in this review.

Onibaba

Japan 1964
98 mins
director
Shindo Kaneto
starring

Otawa Noboku

Sato Kei
Yoshimura Jitsuko

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Introduction by Alex Cox
Director and actors' commentary
On-location footage
Trailer
Gallery
Booklet
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
22 August 2005

region 1
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 1.0 mono
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Interview with director
On-location footage
Trailer
Gallery
sleeve notes
distributor
Criterion
release date
16 March 2004
review posted
24 August 2005

related reviews:
Onibaba
[Blu-ray review]
The Naked Island [DVD review]
The Naked Island [Blu-ray review]
Kuroneko
[DVD review]
Kuroneko
[Blu-ray review]

See all of Slarek's reviews