Review: Japanese Horror Classic 'Onibaba' Scares Again on Blu-ray Courtesy of Criterion

by Sam Cohen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 18, 2021

The creative differences between horror filmmaking in the USA and techniques used in Japan are more apparent than ever in "Onibaba," the classic 1964 horror film from Kaneto Shindo. In the U.S., evil incarnate is often a shade of moralistic rot lying underneath the facade of American ideals. But in Japan, it's often the horror felt from fear of expression, both of a sexual and emotional nature. With "Onibaba," the terror is pulled from the dark eroticism that comes out of the primal emotions of these characters, all of which are suffering from poverty under medieval Japan's social caste system.

The Criterion Collection brings upgrades their previous DVD edition to Blu-ray with a 1080p presentation sourced from a high-definition digital restoration carried out by Criterion. The film looks quite good in this presentation, even when damage can cause unavoidable softness or other imperfections throughout the film. Criterion has carried over the special features from the previous DVD and added a couple, including a booklet essay by critic Elena Lazic and audio commentary from 2001 featuring director Kaneto Shindo.

In the war-torn, windswept marshes of medieval Japan, an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) rob and murder lost samurai, steal their belongings, and sell them in order to survive. Their impoverished existence is characterized by loneliness, and that's what their neighbor Hachi (Kei Satō) preys upon when he returns home from war. There's also the matter of a demon mask that disfigures all those who wear it.

There are a million different reasons why the terrifying power of "Onibaba" has endured through the years. Part of it comes from the folktale nature of the story, which makes it easy to understand, relate to, and even feel like a participant. Add in the high-contrast, black-and-white aesthetic and a crazed score from legend Hikaru Hayashi, and you have a recipe for something truly unique. Even in the limited and bare setting, Shindo provides a master class in tight framing that feels massive even on a TV. The 2.39 ratio aiding the intimacy of all its images.

The maxed-out bitrate also aids the presentation here, especially since it doesn't offer the same fidelity that a 4K restoration can. That being said, it's clear here why a restoration of that resolution wouldn't be possible with the available source materials. This is another great edition from Criterion.

Other special features include:

• Audio commentary from 2001 featuring director Kaneto Shindo and actors Kei Sato and Jitsuko Yoshimura (Blu-ray only)
• Interview from 2003 with Shindo
• On-location footage shot by Sato
• Trailer
• Plus: An essay by film critic Elena Lazic (Blu-ray only), a 2001 director's statement by Shindo, and a version of the Buddhist fable that inspired the film


"Onibaba" is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.