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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
ONIBABA (Masters of Cinema) (DVD & BLU-RAY DUAL FORMAT) [1964]
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 6 May 2014
I liked this 1964 ground-breaking drama about two women trying to survive in the middle of merciless Nanbokucho Wars which devastated Japan during most of XIV century. Even if towards the very end there were some little things I enjoyed less, still, it is definitely an important, major film, a must for all amateurs of good cinema. Below, more of my impressions, with some limited SPOILERS.

Even if it is not absolutely necessary to enjoy this film, I believe that knowing a little bit about the Nanbokucho Wars and especially their quite consequent importance in Japanese national conscience through centuries helps to understand better this film - and also how much courage needed the director to make "Onibaba"...

1. The Nanbokucho Wars (1331-1392)

In XII century Emperors of Japan lost the real power, which was seized by their military commanders who were in the same time leaders of great families of noble land owners - and could count on the support of professional warriors (the samurai) who were their direct vassals. Simplifying the things a little, the XIV century Nanbokucho Wars were a long confrontation between the partisans of restoration of power of the Emperor and a coalition of noble samurai clans who were afraid of losing their power and wealth.

The first fraction, named the Southern Court, was led by the Emperor Go-Daigo and his successors - the other, named the Northern Court was headed by the Ashikaga family, whose leaders claimed from 1338 the title of shogun. Nanbokucho Wars means precisely "wars of Northern and Southern Courts". Ultimately the Ashikaga shoguns prevailed and Emperors became again powerless figureheads - until Meiji restoration in 1868.

With Meiji restoration, the military and political leaders of Southern Court like Kusunoki Masashige (1294-1336), Kusunoki Masatsura (1326-1348) and Kitabataki Chikafusa (1293-1354), who until then were officially considered as rebels and traitors, were rehabilitated and soon became objects of official cult.

Kusunoki Masashige, who indeed was a quite exceptional individual, was particularly venerated as an "ideal samurai", brave, clever and especially loyal to the end. From 1868 to 1945 all Japanese children and teenagers were taught about Kusunoki Masashige amazing (and very real) deeds during the Nanbokucho Wars - and about his ultimate sacrifice in service of the Emperor, resulting in his own death. In 1944 he was also officially designed as an example to follow for the "kamikaze" pilots.

2. The film

Considered all of the above, I believe that if in the beginning of the film we are told that this story occurs in the time of Nanbokucho Wars, it is definitely NOT by accident. The director of "Onibaba" wanted to make a film which, amongst other things, would show the other, mostly forgotten face of samurai wars and denounce especially the cruel hardships suffered by the peasants during those frequently very romanticized conflicts. He could have chosen any war or even refuse to identify the conflict - but he went for the one which was always considered in letters and arts as particularly "glamorous". By confronting this noble image of Nanbokucho Wars with the EXTREMELY down to earth approach of things by starving peasants, concerned only by their most basic survival, he obtained certainly a very powerful shock effect.

This film describes mostly the tribulations of two peasant women living in a shack hidden in a large field of reeds on board of a river. In order to stress more the point how little importance the traditional society attached to the fate of poor peasants, the director decided to not even give them names... One of them is in her late 40s, the other one, her daughter-in-law, is an attractive 20-years old girl. The son of the Older Woman (who is also the husband of the Younger Woman) was conscripted to serve as a simple foot soldier and went to war with the lord of the domain.

In absence of the man who was their only provider the two women are quickly reduced to most abject poverty and face starvation. The film shows frankly and brutally the desperate ways in which they fight for their survival... Then, one day, Hachi, a lone foot soldier who used to be their neighbour, returns from the front after deserting, bringing all kind of news - and soon also the seeds of big trouble... I will say no more about the story.

"Onibaba" was definitely a ground-breaking film, not only by its violent attack against traditional view of Japanese history, but also by a particularly daring display of nudity and a naturalistic showing of basic instincts. In this film there are only two forces which drive human beings, namely hunger and lust - nothing else! The need for sex is of course especially strong for younger people and in this film it is shown very skilfully as a physical urge almost impossible to resist. Answering this call of flesh is shown as a liberating, exhilarating experience, symbolically represented by running as fast as possible through the wild reeds... Important precision here - this is definitely NOT a kind of porn, just a naturalistic film which includes some scenes of intimacy.

The ending of the film, which I didn't like much by the way, can be understood probably in many different ways - for some people it will be a warning that living only by most basic instincts results in losing our humanity, for others a statement that when the natural needs and urges of our bodies are repressed, it ultimately releases demons on the world, yet for others that karma simply is a bitch... But of course I cannot be certain if any of those things are what director intended to say and I may have perceived it all wrong. You will have to decide by yourself how to understand the ending.

3. Conclusion

This is a VERY GOOD and VERY IMPORTANT film. For my personal taste the last ten minutes were a little bit weaker - I found especially the supernatural elements towards the end not really necessary - but I will nevertheless definitely keep this film preciously in my collection for a possible future re-viewing. Enjoy!
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Never has a film been more a prisoner of its own environment than this film, which is shot entirely amongst the beautiful swaying susuki grass. Hiroshi Teshigahara's "Woman of the Dunes" was a similar captive to the all pervading sands it was filmed in. It is as if the characters of the film are marooned on an isolated island, where they scavenge off the flotsam that comes their way. In this instance it happens to be the hapless half dead soldiers of 14th century feudal Japan who fall victims to an old woman and her daughter in law. These unfortunate victims are polished off in brutal fashion by the women and then robbed of all their armour. The bodies are then dumped unceremoniously down a sinister black hole. They then sell their ill gotten gains for much needed food and then wait like spiders for the next juicy flies to fall into their web. Just when things seem to be going so well a man enters their lives to turn their cloistered existence upside down.

The film was a financial success which is unsurprising given the heavy marketing of the strong sexual content. Strong for the time I should hasten to add! Apart from a few bare breasts and some simulated sex there is only enough naughty content to upset a prudish granny. It all seems a bit tame by todays standards! The film was initially refused a certificate in the UK. It is beautifully shot amongst the grass with some memorable scenes, none better than the young woman running breathlessly through the swaying sea of grass to her lover, the grass seeming to possess a life of its own. The repressed emotions are beautifully conveyed by Nobuko Otawa as the older woman, with mere glances and expressions. Otawa also happened to be the wife and muse of the director Kaneto Shindo. Jitsuko Yoshimura seems to effortlessly become the object of desire that would make most men lust after, her frustrated sexual desires slowly erupting to the surface. The film is accompanied by an exceptional score by Hikaru Hayashi which seems to beat a rhythm that lies at the very heart of the film. It is an example of how music can perfectly complement a film.

Alex Cox gives a brief but interesting introduction to the film. This is a piece of movie making that sticks in the mind and has influenced other directors. Asif Kapadia's recent "Far North" seems to be an inferior Arctic version of "Onibaba". The film still has the power to disturb even after all these years which is a credit to the movie making skills of Shindo. It has received mixed reviews with one critic eloquently describing it as a "pot pourri of ravenous eating and blatant sex". Well yes, one cannot deny it has plenty of both, but I think the critic missed the sheer mesmeric beauty of the film. It is wonderful to look at and is a masterclass in repressed emotions, deserving to be part of the "Masters of Cinema" series.
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on 13 October 2006
The general belief that the 1960's was the ground-zero for massive sociological upheaval is one that generally forgets that that decade was almost half over by the time it became the era we remember it for. Until Lee Harvey Oswald's starting rifle ushered in the Love and Napalm dynasty, the first part of the 60's was really a 1950's hangover.

Roughly speaking, `The 60's' only kicked in when the Beatles Landed in America in '64 and ended when the American's landed on the moon five years later. (Were they trying to tell us something?) The so called permissive society emerged from the cultural turbulence of a `swinging London', a `flowered up' San Francisco and a burning Saigon and, as the history books would have it, appeared to challenge everything. Overt sexual, pharmaceutical and political references in entertainment became de rigor and everyone, it seemed, were cutting-edge pioneers at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Meanwhile on the other side of the planet, and away from `the world', it was just another day at the office for director Kaneto Shindo when he released his haunting sex/death opus Onibaba.

Onibaba (`Demon Hag') is based on a Buddhist fable and tells the story of an old woman and her young daughter-in-law during 14th century feudal Japan (or 16th, or 17th depending on who's website you use to check these things) who live in a seemingly endless swamp of high reeds and survive by murdering lost or renegade Samurai warriors.

They strip their victims of their armour to sell for food then dispose of the bodies in a deep dark ominous hole.

One day a masked stranger is passing and forces the old woman to help him find his way to Kyoto. She asks him why he hides his face behind a creepy demon-Noh mask and he tells her that he is so beautiful it would blind her to look at him. She tricks him by leading him to the hole where he falls in. Her curiosity gets the better of her and she climbs down into the hole littered with her rotting victims to see the man's `beautiful face' which turns out to be more Robin Williams than Robbie Williams. Disappointed, she takes the mask and uses it to disguise herself as a demon to scare her daughter-in-law away from the door of a man she is having an illicit affair with and who, she believes, will run away and leave her alone to fend for herself. The plan backfires when the mask clings to her face turning her into the demon she pretends to be.

The hole is the key element here and is a constant presence throughout the film and seems to represent both the womb and the crypt; the entrance at which life and death pass each other to and from this world and the next. The old woman's desperate venture into the hole for a glimpse of beauty mirrors her hope that perhaps there is still some vestige of beauty within her. Her discovery reveals there isn't, thus setting in motion her `girl who cried demon' comeuppance.

Onibaba's psychosexual symbolism and nudity is treated in an offhand manner, unlike western movies of the period which would, if only they could, have turned this into the films primary selling point. Onibaba rendered the `progressive free West' way behind the game in terms of what was `happening' in an age where taboos were supposed to have been broken every ten minutes. Onibaba was immediately banned on its release in the U.K and only given an `X' certificate in 1968 with cuts. It would be 1994 before we were considered grown up enough to see the uncut version. So much for the `let it all hang out' generation's brave new world.

Adrian Stranik
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on 15 November 2015
There are a lot of reviews that already give an overview of the story-line.

All I will add is that having watched this film many years ago, it stuck with me as being one of the most bleak and atmospherically oppressive films I have ever seen.

The ending is bleak and brutal.

Definitely worth watching at least one, especially if you're a fan of Japanese cinema, and although it has merit, it's probably not one you will return to time and time again as with many of Kurosawa's films, for example.
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on 17 June 2013
Onibaba is a classic Japanese movie which, due to its location (fields of reeds and tall grasses waving in the breeze) and the excellent cinematography has a sweat-soaked atmosphere of menace and amoral behaviour, created by the need to survive in a war-ravaged society. It is sometimes described as a 'horror' film which is a huge mistake; what the mother and daughter do is horrible enough but at no point is it frightening to a 21st century viewer. This movie is all about duplicity, barely suppressed erotic desire and the consequences of living beyond the rules.

I have watched this film on many occasions and it's a worthwhile experience every time. It is visually compelling in a way that completely underscores the sexual tension and the desperately unpleasant way these women have chosen (been compelled?) to make a living. Eerily beautiful photography and characters you can't look away from; quite simply a classic.

The blu-ray transfer is up to the usual Eureka standard and comes with an informative booklet and extras. An essential blu-ray for the lover of Japanese classic movie-making.
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on 30 June 2006
ONIBABA was a worldwide hit when it was released in 1964. It's not hard to see why. The film is an allegory on several levels, commenting on the pointlessness of war and the failings of capitalism. The film can be enjoyed without appreciating any of that, with it's simmering erotisim and superb photography in a unique setting.

The DVD has worthwhile extras. The director's and actor's commentary is quite interesting as is the home video footage taken on location by Kei Sato.

Highly recommended
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VINE VOICEon 12 August 2006
I first saw this film during the late 1960s and thought then it was something special. Certainly very different to what Hollywood was producing at the time. This film, superbly filmed and acted, oozes a tremendous atmosphere throughout. Set during the civil wars which blighted Japan during the 16th century, two women, mother and daughter, struggle to survive within a torrid landscape riddled with death. They strip dead Samurai warriors of their armour to sell in order to feed themselves. The daughter then develops a relationship with a warrior who has escaped the war and is just looking for a peaceful and loving existence. Her mother becomes jealous and develops plans to destroy the relationship. Although the ending is a little bizarre, it just ends abruptly, it doesnt spoil the film entirely. There is enough in this film to satisfy any movie buff. Worth seeing.
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on 18 February 2013
Having never seen this film I took a gamble ....well not much of one as The masters of cinema blu rays are always of a high standard (at least the one ive bought)

i wont review actual film as you can find plenty around the net.

Picture quality is fantastic, not that i was expecting it wouldnt be, but it really is a lovley looking blu, a great restoration.

ive not had a chance to dig into the extras, but the disc is worth if for the film alone
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on 3 November 2014
Amid the bulrushes two women living of killing, when one day one of their acquaintance come back form war
Minimalistic and intense the film is typical of Japanese Art.. The scenery and the music creates a strong environment where each details seem to take a specific intensity. The scripts tells the story of possession, control and sexuality. As in many Japanese film the sex bound is depicted as a compelling instinct of life. Behind the simplicity of the scripts and the beauty of the pictures hides deep thoughts and thinking. A Japanese masterpiece I would say
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on 19 May 2006
The deconstrunction and demystification of the samurai myth had been a project Akira Kurosawa had taken upon himself and that had seemingly reached a conclusion in YOJIMBO (1962), but Shindo's ONIBABA (1964) takes it a step further by presenting them as bedraggled and exhausted, hungry and at the mercy of two seemingly innocuous women. Shindo's world is hot and sultry, the characters weak and vulnerable. This is a very good depiction of the affects of war on the fringes of society and the lengths certain parties must go to in order to survive. As well as exploring this theme Shindo also adds several intriguing layers, sexuality and jealousy make a potent combination, as does the inserion of old Japanese folk tales. The result is a film that shows the eroticism of human beings in their most natural and stripped down state. Be hypnotised by the swaying grass fields and the sumptious black and white cinematography in this Japanese gem. Criterion's disc is very good.
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