Kaneto Shindo, one of Japan's most prolific directors, received his biggest international success with the release of Onibaba in 1964. Its depiction of violence and graphic sexuality was unprecedented at the time of release. Shindo managed through his own production company Kindai Eiga Kyokai to bypass the strict, self-regulated Japanese film industry and pave the way for such films as Yasuzo Masumura's Mojuu (1969) and Nagisa Oshima's Ai no corrida (1976).
If Hammer Studios had ever set up a Japanese franchise, the outcome might have looked rather like this. Kaneto Shindo's film has something of the lurid, full-throated relish for the horror of Hammer at its best, plus a visual elegance all its own. The story is based on a folk tale, set in Japan's war-torn 14th century. The action takes place almost entirely in a riverside marshland overgrown with tall swaying reeds. A woman and her daughter-in-law living in a hut prey on wounded samurai warriors fleeing from a nearby battlefield, killing them and selling their armour for handfuls of rice. When the younger woman falls for a handsome young deserter, the mother decides to put a stop to the affair. But the method she chooses demands a terrible price. Shooting in lustrous widescreen black-and-white, Shindo creates an eerie, atmospheric world haunted by the ceaseless dry whisperings of the reeds. None of the characters is loveable, or even likeable, but the thorough rapacity of the women, and the raw sexuality of the lovers, convey a fierce determination to survive even at the lowest scavenging edge of a violent society. --Philip Kemp
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