Onibaba – Kaneto Shindo (1964)

Last week saw the passing away of one of Japan’s greatest and most forward thinking directors to appear in the country’s golden age of cinema.  At the age of 100 Kaneto Shindo was still going strong having only made his last film in 2010 as well as his much overdue retrospective starting at BFI Southbank being mere days later, it seems his life was one of constant creation and work.  It seems fitting then for this week’s selection of classic DVD to be a release of his best and most renowned film.

With Japan holding the monopoly on the horror genre in recent years, it can be surprising to the find the genre in such good health in the 1960s.  Shindo is one of the main reasons for this (along with Masaki Kobayashi) and his handful of horror films are some of the country’s strongest.  1964’s Onibiba (or Devil Woman) is his most potent and a powerful psychological drama that oozes tension and overt eroticism.

Set in the 14th century at the height of Japan’s bloody civil war instantly lends an air of desperation to the film.  We follow a mother and her daughter-in-law as they try to survive while the men are away at war.  Together they hatch a scheme of killing off lone Samurai warriors in order to trade their weapons and armour for food.  This concept in itself presents some stark visual ideas, especially in the apparent pit where the bodies of the warriors are thrown.  This also seems revolutionary in the sense of reversing the gender roles set in Japan; giving the female characters strong leads and a masculine dominating narrative that would have no doubt been a shock to the male viewers of the time.

Our two woman’s relationship becomes tested with the arrival of a deserter Samurai who lives in a near by hut.  Jealousy breaks out between the two as it becomes clear that the daughter is sneaking out at night for sex.  Again pushing the eroticism to new highs, the film dwells on the pleasures of the female character that is, in essence, cheating on the mother’s son.  This jealousy manifests itself when the mother kills a mysterious Samurai who has the mask of a demon.  Using the ugly form of the mask, the Mother scares the daughter away from the deserter’s hut whenever she sneaks out.  However the mask is no mere object and soon the mother becomes attached to it, both psychologically and physically, perhaps representing the lifestyle change the character has had to adapt to and the impossibility of life going back to normal after becoming a killer.  This builds the typical down beat horror finale and is one of the more effective shock endings of the genre.

Setting the film in the seven-foot high Susuki grass fields is an absolute masterstroke on Shindo’s part.  This not only acts as an eerie and nervous setting but also as an audible character in the film that shimmers and plays with the idea of diegetic sound in the same way so many horror movies of the West would do in years to come.  This outback setting also lends well to the clear sexual desperation of all three main protagonists who appear stuck in a world outside of society and away from any sort of social morality.

The Masters of Cinema release from Eureka does Shindo proud with a superb restoration job on the anamorphic transfer.  The release also includes some brilliant extras including a commentary with Shindo himself as well as actors Kei Sato and Jitsuko Yoshimura, plus a 24 page booklet of interviews, essays and even the original Buddhist parable the film is based on.

Onibaba is just one of Kaneto Shindo’s brilliant feats of cinema.  He was a director both willing to experiment and push boundaries while always making sure his films were enjoyable and thought provoking.  His death is a sad loss to the world of cinema but with a back catalogue so rich and innovative, he’ll out live us all with grace and ease.

Kaneto Shindo – 1912 – 2012

Adam Scovell

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