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An opening vista of gently undulating pampas grass in magnificent widescreen - but there’s something sinister about these sibilant susuki meadows. Onibaba, a ‘jidai-geki’ (period drama), presents us with human beings reduced to near-bestiality as they struggle to survive during the ‘Warring States’ period of the C15th. Two nameless women, an abandoned wife and her mother-in-law, prowl the grasslands, ready to dispatch any unwary retreating samurai, stripping them of their armour to trade for black market millet (or, if they’re lucky, rice) and tipping the denuded cadavers into an ominous hole in the ground. The pair seem to operate a successful business model, but the balance is disturbed when neighbour Hachi suddenly returns from the wars, announcing their husband / son dead and immediately lusting after the younger woman. Fearing she’ll be abandoned when her daughter-in-law responds to these attentions (which she inevitably does), the older woman vengefully plots an horrific admonishment.
Shindo’s strikingly-shot film is based on an ancient Buddhist parable extolling the necessity for devotion. However, he substitutes sex for prayer, perhaps something to which a modern audience can better relate. Known for his realist films of the 1950s, often depicting ordinary people dealing with Japan’s post-war trauma and deprivation, with Onibaba Shindo took a more allegorical and aesthetic approach, delivering a powerfully atmospheric film that will haunt you long after your viewing. The actions, be they murderous or carnal, are shown with a visceral artistry, and the setting amongst the tall susuki grass is a stroke of genius, the constantly waving, whispering fronds both concealing and suddenly revealing scenes of love and death. There’s the uncanniest feeling to the frequent scenes of the daughter sprinting through the grasses at night towards her lover’s hut, enveloped in an abstract score of animal noises and percussion – is she in pursuit, or being pursued?
Onibaba won two Blue Ribbons (awarded by Japanese film critics and writers) in 1965 – one for its cinematography, the other for Best Supporting Actress (Jitsuko Yoshimura).
“This really is one of the most arresting and haunting films you will ever see” – Mark Kermode, BFIPlayer.
“Beautifully shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda, with an unforgettable setting in a sea of swaying grass and a memorable soundtrack by Hikaru Hayashi, consisting of saxophones (to echo the sound of wind through reeds), primitivist drums, raucous tubas and ritualistic voices, Onibaba is a stark portrayal of lust, jealousy and raw hunger.” – Anton Bitel, Eye For Film.
“Onibaba is a chilling movie, a waking nightmare shot in icy monochrome, and filmed in a colossal and eerily beautiful wilderness: a Japanese susuki field” - Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian.
Screening as part of Japan 2021: 100 years of Japanese Cinema, a UK-wide film season supported by National Lottery and BFI Film Audience Network. bfijapan.co.uk