Menacing Meaning: Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) – Blu-ray review
What is Onibaba? Forget literal translation – it’s the perfect word to convey the mystery and menace of Shinto’s unclassifiable drama
(Kaneto Shindo, 1964)
There’s no set formula to how foreign language film titles are marketed in English speaking territories. For every film that retains its original name (La Dolce Vita, Les Enfants Du Paradis) there’s another that prefers the more explanatory task of translation (Seven Samurai, Wild Strawberries). Often, it’s a matter of what sounds right – on which score Onibaba is just about perfect.
The title roughly translates as The Demoness, which makes it sound like a schlocky horror movie. But Kaneto Shindo’s drama is altogether stranger: a feral film of basic instincts and harsh landscapes. Impossible to classify by genre, it’s best described by its haunted tone of lust, jealousy and uncanny emotions. Or, in a word, Onibaba.
Shindo introduces his world in a spellbinding, wordless 10-minute sequence, as we follow two wounded samurai as they hide into an undulating forest of riverside reeds. Then, just as quickly as we’re introduced to them, they are murdered by an old woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura), who strip them of weaponry and armour to sell for food, and toss the corpses into a creepy looking hole amongst the reeds.
Already, we’re in a dog eat dog world of threadbare sustenance and desperate measures, so when Hachi (Kei Sato) – a neighbour who was forcibly taken to fight in the region’s endless war with the women’s son/husband – returns with bad news, it’s not exactly a surprise. Nor is the sense that this third wheel is going to upset the convenient arrangement the ladies have forged.
To say more would spoil Shindo’s aversion to predictability, as this bizarre love triangle gets steadily more bizarre, piling on imagery more akin to a horror movie and a sexual explicitness that might make you check the date of release. But there’s also the weird sense that the story couldn’t have gone any other way. Shindo apparently based it on an old Buddhist parable, and in retrospect there’s an inevitability to proceedings, a fatalistic tale hewn from the elements.
What Shindo adds is a formidable technique that balances timelessness with a thrusting modernity. His startling camera placements amongst the reeds produce a frenzy of movement, as characters appear and disappear into their surroundings in ways that are both witty and disconcerting. But there’s also a psychological precision to the way he frames conversation, with a teasing triangulation of characters that alters our perspective with each edit to convey their shifting allegiances.
And in the middle of everything, providing a baleful eye on events, is that hole. It’s a symbol for whatever you want it to be: Alex Cox, in an accompanying introduction, reckons it stands for capitalism’s rapacious hunger for profit, while the matter-of-fact piling up of corpses reminds that Shinto lived through WWII. Yet the explanation might be even simpler, and older, than that: an open grave, mocking us as to the futility of existence and the inevitability that we’ll all return to the soil eventually.