|Starring:||Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Yoshimura|
|Video codec:||MPEG-4 AVC|
|Audio:||Japanese: LPCM 2.0|
In the collective memory of horror aficionados, it’s easy to believe that each offering to the blood stained horror altar is a gory spectacle of fright. However, it is important to look back and remember how far the genre has come, and Onibaba (translated into English as Demoness), directed by Kaneto Shindo, is one of the best examples of modern horror’s roots. Released in 1964, this Japanese historical horror was incredibly controversial during its initial release due to the depiction of sex and violence at an as-of-yet unheard of level. Now released on Blu-Ray, this edition has been granted a high-res transfer to breathe new life into this timeless horror classic.
Set during a tempestuous time of Japanese history, Onibaba opens with two injured samurai trudging through grass that grows high over their heads. Suddenly, out of the rushes comes an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) to quickly dispatch the soldiers, taking their supplies and dumping their bodies. Thus the stage is set, showing the viewer a world of desperate isolation. When an old neighbor and friend Hachi (Kei Satô) returns home with the tragic news, the women’s partnership is threatened as the younger woman is quickly seduced by the escaped soldier. Driven by jealousy, the older woman works to stop the two lovers from meeting again, wielding religious guilt as her most dangerous weapon.
Shindo uses his setting to optimal advantage, choosing to shoot within a sea of grass that seems both incredibly expansive while invoking a mind-numbing sense of entrapment. The cast is sparse which heightens not only the isolation of the characters, but also paints these characters in archetypal strokes. The young woman is vibrant and sexual, a young lover obsessed with the lust she feels for the first new man to come around in years. Conversely, the older woman is a crone and pushes her own sexuality forth where it is not desired in a fractured love triangle fueled by jealousy and desperation.
Onibaba is a fairy tale in the darkest sense, constructed from tragedy and fueled by sexual obsession and superstition. While the sex and violence are tame by current standards, the terror of Onibaba comes on slowly, but stays for hours after the film is complete.
Onibaba uses only one standard audio track: Japanese LPCM 2.0, but the most intriguing parts of the film are when there is no dialogue at all. The soundtrack is very sparse, yet resoundingly effective. The silences are not quite as silent as one might want, with the light white noise common in remastered classics present throughout the film. However, The dialogue is crisp and easily understood (if versed in Japanese) and the subtitles can be followed equally as easy. The high-res remastering truly breathes life into the old film, making the brights vibrant and the darks more shadowed, making the film almost look modern in its video presentation.
The special features are definitely worth it, featuring a long form trailer for the film that focuses on an unflinching look at the film’s own sex and violence. Coupled with that is an introduction to the film by Alex Cox of Sid and Nancy fame. This excellent introduction grants insight to not only the film, but the world in which the film was set. There is also a full-length audio commentary by director Kaneto Shindô and the stars of the film, Kei Satô and Jitsuko Yoshimura.
Although the film has lost its shock value due to the desensitized attitude of our times and the current climate of popular culture, Onibaba still stands as an entertaining film. With the “facelift” it has received, this Blu-Ray will make a terrific addition to any classic foreign horror fan’s shelf.
~ By Catherine Kovach