Onibaba was originally released on the Criterion label in 2004, and its long-awaited Blu-ray re-release hits just in time for Halloween 2021. This classic from the golden age of Japanese horror cinema tells the tale of two Nanboku-chō-period women struggling to live in a medieval Japan displaced by constant war. The Older Woman (Nobuko Otowa) is harried, angry and cynical compared to the Younger Woman (Jitsuko Yoshimura), her daughter-in-law who still hopes her husband will return. Their home is a shack deep inside a field of susuki grass. Nearby, there’s a seemingly bottomless pit. To survive, the two women ambush warriors, kill them, toss their bodies into the abyss and then sell the pillaged gear and weapons for food. Their victims are usually just deserters from a pointless war between Emperors. Life is bad here at absolute rock bottom.
Then their obscurity is punctured by a visitor, Hachi (Kei Satō), who changes everything by arriving with news that the Young Woman’s husband (and the Older Woman’s son) died in battle. Hachi is obnoxious, disgusting and horny. So, too, is the Young Woman, who quickly starts a no-strings-attached affair with him.
For most of its running time, Onibaba is an erotic drama set during wartime. In the special features, director Kaneto Shindo is upfront about the fact that he wasn’t necessarily making a horror movie although the final act, featuring a scary mask and a moral comeuppance, certainly plays that way. His interest was in depicting human sexuality as the most natural and basic form of interpersonal interaction. It feels very much of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, and the “angry older woman disapproves of the young woman’s promiscuity” plays into that interpretation. Then again, she also offers herself to Hachi; maybe she just wants some, too.
With its frank, but thoughtful, approach to sexuality, Onibaba sets itself apart from other films of its era.
This release features a new digital restoration. The special features are the same as the original DVD release, which includes an interview with the director, on-location footage and an audio commentary with the director and stars. Also included in the Blu-ray release is an essay by film critic Elena Lazic, which is a fantastic overview of the movie’s themes and historical significance. Additionally, the booklet features one version of the Buddhist folk tale upon which the film was based and a very short director’s statement by Shindo.