Review: Onibaba / Cert: 15 / Director: Kaneto Shindo / Screenplay: Kaneto Shindo / Starring: Nabuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura, Kei Sato / Release Date: February 25th
In Seven Samurai, Toshiro Mifuni's character describes how seemingly helpless peasants have a nasty habit of ganging up to kill any wounded samurai they come across. That's the subject of this swelteringly claustrophobic Japanese movie which is the Patient Zero of J-horror.
It's a period of civil war. Everyone is starving and desperate. Abandoned by her son, Kichi, who has been dragged off unwillingly to fight, a middle-aged mother (Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Yoshimura) are forced to fend for themselves by becoming murderers, ambushing the exhausted samurai who stray every now and then into the fields of towering susuki grass where they live, then tossing their bodies into a pit and trading their valuable armour for bags of millet.
Together, the duo are an unstoppable killing machine (and woe betide any wild dog who crosses their path, because they'll be having it for dinner). But when Kichi's friend Hachi (Sato) returns from the war, things change. Hachi claims that Kichi is dead. He's an untrustworthy layabout, a permanent leer plastered across his face, but all the same the daughter-in-law believes him and starts to fall for his feckless charms. Fearful and jealous, the mother decides to take action...
Inspired by a Buddhist fable, Onibaba retains the raw simplicity and jolting abruptness of a folk tale, but it's also a near-perfect piece of filmmaking. Kiyomi Kuroda's deep focus cinematography makes great play with the endless vistas of grass, which seem to crackle and stir to the brewing drama, and sudden extreme close-ups where you can practically count the beads of sweat on the characters' faces (and it's never looked better than in this superb HD, 2.35:1 aspect ratio transfer).
The cast all give out of their skin performances. With staring eyes and a white streak in her hair, Otowa is as ferocious as an angry badger, and disturbingly sexual too (witness the bit where she humps a tree). Yoshimura is extraordinarily sensual and iconic as a girl who has reverted to a primitive, almost feral state, only for her womanhood to be reawakened by her romance with Hachi. And then there's Hikaru Hayashi's percussive score of tribal drums and primal shrieks to add a final touch of savagery to proceedings.
Onibaba was a huge hit on the international art house circuit when it was first released, partly because it gave young men a rare change to see bare breasts (in black and white! Who would have thunk?). Nearly 50 years on, it still makes for compulsive viewing – a film as lean and mean and unrelenting as its scary protagonists. This wonderful release comes bolstered with a whole array of top extras, including an entertaining introduction by Alex Cox, illuminating audio commentary with the venerable director and his stars, and a full forty minutes of fascinating behind-the-scenes footage.
Extras: Audio commentary by director Kaneto Shindo and actors Kei Sato and Jitsuko Yoshimura / Video introduction by Alex Cox / 8mm footage shot on location by Kei Sato / Theatrical trailer / Production stills and art gallery/ 36 page booklet