According to the scrupulous production notes included on the DVD, Kaneto Shindô's darkly erotic folktale Onibaba was shot over three months in Japanese wetlands, a forbidding bog shrouded by "suzuki fields"seven-foot-tall reeds swaying majestically in the breeze. Squeezed into a few prefabricated thatch houses, the cast and crew weathered numerous setbacks, including the sweltering heat, Biblical rainstorms, and a daily plague of crawfish and bugs. Yet the adverse conditions stain the film with a tactile quality that would not have been otherwise possible, giving nature a key supporting role in a story that evokes human behavior at its most primal and uninhibited.
Released in 1964, the same year as Hiroshi Teshigahara's classic Woman Of The Dunes, Onibaba treads on remarkably similar psychosexual territory, from the brutally remote locale to the suggestive premise of desperate women luring wayward men into a hole. In this case, the need for survival in wartime medieval Japan leads directly to savagery, which in turn has its own mortal and spiritual consequences. Left to a barren harvest after a samurai goes off to indefinite battle, Nobuko Otowa and her daughter-in-law Jitsuko Yoshimura murder lost warriors, toss their bodies into a pit, and barter their meager belongings for food. When neighbor Kei Sato returns from conflict with news that Yoshimura's husband has died, she soon turns to Sato for sex, igniting a reaction from Otowa that's somewhere between jealousy and outrage. Things take a macabre turn when Otowa pries a terrifying demon mask off her latest victim and attempts to frighten the young lovers into ending their relationship.
Cued to Hikaru Hayashi's radical score, which combines frenzied percussion with sharp avant-garde trumpet bursts, Onibaba sustains a high level of emotional intensity, particularly in sex scenes far removed from polite, soft-focus choreography. Having survived a 21-month stint as a soldier in WWII, Shindô shows how war exposes human nature in its rawest form and reveals a capacity for evil in everyone when basic survival is at stake. Many of the actions in the film are horrifying and despicable, but few are beyond comprehension, because Shindô registers his characters' needs so clearly and urgently. Though the black-and-white Cinemascope photography contributes to the unsettling atmosphere, the true horror arises from behavior that seems inhuman, yet is framed as all too human. Through this distorted lens, Shindô re-imagines a famous Buddhist legend as a chilling parable on the ravages of war.