It is easy to look at films like Onibaba and be consistently amazed with just how much they got away with in the 1960s. Fear not, UK censorship fans: they didn't get away with it. Kaneto Shindô's patient Thriller was banned by the BBFC between 1965-1968, before receiving an X-certificate in the later of those years, after it was re-submitted and cut.
In the more liberal time of 2013, it arrives on to Blu-ray with a 15-certificate, mainly for the frequent nudity and sensuality but also for the pervading sense of dread that throws a cloak over the whole thing and can justifiably see Shindô's film classed as a Horror. If it is, it's one with plenty of potential message in its loose structuring and carefully ambiguous imagery. As Doug Cummings writes in the accompanying booklet, 'Onibaba is a film that is often overwhelmed by interpretation, partly because its minimalist and primal elements encourage metaphorical readings'.
Certainly, in the early parts of the film, it is difficult to ignore the pit into which the two murderous women (Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura) throw their victims, having robbed them of their valuable armour. Its later significance to both the narrative and both main characters reflects its early symbolism. The hole as a concept in Horror continues to echo in contemporary productions - most obviously Joe Dante's The Hole - where it is used to reflect un-said feelings or threats that the film or protagonist is not yet ready to externalise. Late on, when Otowa's character is forced in to a controlled descent of the hole, it is noticeable that she brings out of it that which is then key to her downfall.
The relevance of Shindô's film to contemporary Horror is not limited merely to the idea of the hole, or even to the mask disguise which shows up later on. Notice from very early on that the sound design, marshalled by Tetsuya Ohashi, featuring original music by Hikaru Hayashi, adopts the quiet-loud dynamic so beloved of major franchises such as the Paranormal Activity films, and hundreds before them. On a slightly facetious note, it could be pointed out that this is proof definite that Terrence Malick is not the first director to rely abundantly on shots of waving grasses for beautiful juxtaposition.
Many of the overwhelming interpretations Cummings refers to focus deeply on the films sexual politics; a heady mix of female desire, sexual appetite and male lusting. It seems from early on that Hachi (Kei Satô) is destined for a not all-together pleasant fall for his approaches towards Yoshimura's character. Twice he attempts to secure time alone with her and twice he is rebuffed by Otowa (is she protective or jealous?). Both times, Hachi almost then immediately comes face-to-face with the hole in the marsh. His comeuppance for attempting to seduce his friend's widow has been sealed.
At least in regard to Yoshimura, Shindô seems liberally happy with the fact that, as a young women, she should have a sexual appetite and a desire for male partnership. As the film progresses, she is seen more and more as the victim of Otowa's shrewish behaviour and, in the finale, it is the later that is punished, despite her brief reign of terror aimed at thwarting Hachi and Yoshimura's union. Regardless of the metaphor, the simple plot mechanics have a refreshingly open and simplistic attitude towards gender politics and sexual relations.
Perhaps regardless of how deep you wish to read Onibaba, its real worth is in this surface-level plotting, which weaves in Shakespearian notes of families, sex, murder and a deeply ingrained and pre-destined notion of tragedy. Shindô wrote the piece himself but it would be little surprise to find it on a theatre stage somewhere, such are the clear and classic movements, which build into an effective and thrilling piece of threatening moral cinema. Note to the expert cinematography by Kiyomi Kuroda. Rarely has a black and white film looked so black, and then produced a white beast of such threat from the gloom, as Onibaba's demon form is revealed in the lurid third act.
Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.
Onibaba is released in the UK on Monday 25th February 2013