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In 14th century Japan two women scrape a living by murdering samurai then selling on their belongings. Perversion and psychosexual violence ensue in Kaneto Shindô's Japanese horror story
Hailed by the director of The Exorcist, William Friedkin, as the scariest film he'd ever seen, Kaneto Shindô's landmark Japanese horror still has the power to moisten palms and quicken the heart. By turns eerie, erotic and unsettlingly claustrophobic, Onibaba is a bleak and intense fable about the drift towards amorality that, several decades after its release, still reeks of sexual transgression and atavistic violence - most of it implemented by the film's two isolated female protagonists.
Set in war torn 14th century Japan, the film centres on a mother (Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Yoshimura) who live amid the blade-like reeds of the barren wetlands. There they support themselves by murdering samurai, dumping their bodies in a hole and selling on their belongings. Both women hope that eventually their son/husband will return home from the war. In the meantime the girl has taken a samurai lover (Sato) whose own motivations are less than pure. In a bid to keep the suitor at bay the mother-in-law, tortured by repressed desire herself, dons the grotesque mask of a slaughtered warrior. It's a gesture that triggers a slide into barbarism as inescapable as the hole itself.
Onibaba (aka The Hole, The Demon, Devil Woman) is adapted from an ancient Japanese folk tale. Shindô's immaculate retelling is heavy with dread - a sense maintained both by the director's highly evocative style and his decision to leave several key issues unresolved, not least of which is the significance of the hole. Existential abyss, gateway to hell or overcrowded grave: Shindô's purposefully vague about specifics - as with everything here, it's the sense of moral failure that counts.
It was the topless women violently venting their frustration that generated controversy in 1964. Now Onibaba's appeal lies in Shindô's severe style, his sophisticated orchestration of the characters' collapse, and in Hikaru Hayashi's soundtrack of scary primal jazz. As with Kuroneko (1968), which revisits several key themes and again demonstrates Shindô's flair for the unnatural, Onibaba graphically illustrates that brutalism, art and allegory can co-exist to spellbindingly powerful effect.
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On Film4: 02 April 2015