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The Criterion Collection presents
Onibaba (1964)

"I hear you two do good business. How many have you killed?"
- Hachi (Kei Sato)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: March 23, 2004

Stars: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Sato
Other Stars: Jukichi Uno, Taiji Tonoyama
Director: Kaneto Shindo

Manufacturer: Radius60
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, gore, nudity, sexuality)
Run Time: 01h:42m:39s
Release Date: March 16, 2004
UPC: 037429185827
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Japanese horror didn't start recently, despite what some viewers of Ring might believe. The Japanese horror film anticipated modern Western horror by incorporating sexuality with death long before it was permissible in America. Together with Kwaidan, Onibaba (Demon Woman) is one of the classic works of Japanese horror.

In war-torn medieval Japan, the mother (Nobuko Otowa) and wife (Jitsuko Yashimura) of Kichi have been left behind when he is drafted into service. They make the best of their difficult lot, living in a hut surrounded by tall susuki grasses, killing soldiers who wander into the grass and robbing their corpses. Their neighbor Hachi (Kei Sato) returns from the wars without Kichi, claiming that their son and husband is now dead. Hachi puts the moves on the younger woman, who feels a mutual attraction but is chastised by the mother-in-law and prohibited from seeing Hachi. Her impulses are too strong, however, and the wife rushes into the grasses at night to meet her lover. When the older woman kills a demon-masked samurai, she hits upon the idea of using the mask to play upon the daughter-in-law's sense of guilt. But the mask itself may have other plans.

Although the supernatural element is reserved for the last segment, the entire picture has a sense of the horrific, especially in the survival activities of the two women. As Hitchcock observed, it's hard to kill a person, and the two women (who are never named) don't have an easy path. Even when they do have their prizes, they're cheated by Ushi the fence (Taiji Tonoyama), making the profitability of their depravities questionable. Their animalistic tendencies, the veneer of civilization ripped away, are given free rein, as demonstrated by the way they eat their rice by the fistful; the same tendencies are apparent in the rutting of the young woman and Hachi, which have a desperate character to them. Hachi also gleefully joins into the fray, killing, and robbing with little regard for morality or decency. The mother-in-law's objections are only partly due to respect for her dead son; she also wants Hachi for her own sexual pleasures. Her jealousy is palpable as the camera twitches in sexual rhythm as she clutches a gigantic phallic tree.

The visual design is classic, with the tall waving grasses making for an unearthly background for the depredations of the little clan. The rich blacks throughout the night sequences and deep shadows emphasize the internal darkness of the characters. The image of the demon mask, borrowed from classical Japanese drama, is an unforgettable icon and really launches this tale into the upper ranks of international horror.

The level of sexuality and nudity is surprisingly frank for 1964, which no doubt both helped and hindered its original arthouse showings in America. But it's still a chilling depiction of what can happen in desperate times. The use of black-and-white photography, in contrast to the lush color of Kwaidan, emphasizes the bleakness of this living hell.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: While the susuki grasses are one of the most important elements of the imagery used by director Kaneto Shindo, they're also constantly in motion and thus difficult to render digitally. Aliasing is frequent on the moving grasses. Otherwise, the picture looks quite good, with the black-and-white photography evincing a wide greyscale as well as properly deep blacks. It's probably as good as one can expect out of NTSC television.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The 1.0 mono track in the original Japanese sounds fine. Dialogue has good presence, although it sounds as if it was looped. Hikata Hayashi's jazzy and percussive score sounds terrific despite the mono, with excellent bass extension and natural sounding winds. There's some moderate hiss and noise but nothing that's exceptional for a 1960s film.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
0 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:24m:40s

Extra Extras:
  1. Behind-the-scenes footage
  2. Gallery
Extras Review: The principal extra of note is a recently-filmed interview (21m:04s) with director/screenwriter Kaneto Shindo. Now 90 years of age, he's still actively makng films and his recollections of this picture are both sharp and interesting. Star Kei Sato also shot some behind-the-scenes footage (apparently in 8mm) that is included here without any audio. Running 37m:55s, it's mildly interesting especially for giving a glimpse at the colors not seen onscreen in the feature. A trailer, missing the overlays, is also present, as is a short gallery of production drawings, posters and the promotional booklet from its original release. The accompanying booklet contains some brief essays as well as the text of the Buddhist parable that was the source of the demon mask story. Not an overwhelming package by Criterion standards, but better than barebones.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

One of the great works of Japanese horror, with a decent transfer and some useful extras. Recommended.


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