Onibaba (film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byKaneto Shindo
Screenplay byKaneto Shindo
Produced byToshio Konya[1]
CinematographyKiyomi Kuroda[2]
Edited byToshio Enoki[2]
Music byHikaru Hayashi[2]
Distributed byToho
Release date
  • November 21, 1964 (1964-11-21) (Japan)
Running time
102 minutes[2]

Onibaba (鬼婆, "Demon Hag") is a 1964 Japanese historical drama horror film written and directed by Kaneto Shindo. The film is set during a civil war in the fourteenth century. Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura play two women who kill soldiers to steal their possessions, and Kei Satō plays the man who ultimately comes between them.


The film is set somewhere in Japan, in the mid-fourteenth century during a period of civil war. Two fleeing soldiers are ambushed in a large field of tall, thick reeds and murdered by an older woman and her young daughter-in-law. The two women loot the dead soldiers, strip them of their armour and weapons, and drop the bodies in a deep pit hidden in the field. The next day, they take the armor and weapons to a merchant named Ushi and trade them for food. The merchant tells them news of the war, which is driving people across the country to desperation. As they leave, Ushi makes a sexual proposition to the older woman, who rebuffs him. A neighbor named Hachi, who has been at war, returns. The two women ask about Kishi, who was both the older woman's son and younger woman's husband, and was drafted along with Hachi. Hachi tells them that they deserted the war and that Kishi was later killed when they were caught stealing food from farmers. The older woman warns the younger woman to stay away from Hachi, whom she blames for her son's death.

Hachi begins to show interest in the younger woman and, despite being warned to stay away from Hachi, she is seduced by him. She begins to and sneak out every night to run to his hut and have sex. The older woman learns of the relationship and is both angry and jealous. She tries to seduce Hachi herself, but is coldly rebuffed. She then pleads with him to not take her daughter-in-law away, since she cannot kill and rob passing soldiers without her help.

One night, while Hachi and the younger woman are together, a lost samurai wearing a Hannya mask forces the older woman to guide him out of the field. He claims to wear the mask to protect his incredibly handsome face from harm. She tricks him into plunging to his death in the pit where the women dispose of their victims. She climbs down and steals the samurai's possessions and, with great difficulty, his mask, revealing the samurai's horribly disfigured face.

At night, as the younger woman goes to see Hachi, the older woman blocks her path, wearing the samurai's robes and oni mask, frightening the girl into running home. During the day, the older woman further convinces the younger woman that the "demon" was real, as punishment for her affair with Hachi. The younger woman avoids Hachi during the day, but continues to try and see him at night. During a storm, the older woman again terrifies the younger woman with the mask, but Hachi, tired of being ignored, finds the younger woman and has sex with her in the grass as her mother-in-law watches. The older woman realizes that despite all her warnings, her daughter-in-law wants to be with Hachi. Hachi returns to his hut, where he discovers another deserter stealing his food; the deserter abruptly grabs his spear and stabs Hachi, killing him.

The older woman discovers that, after getting wet in the rain, the mask is impossible to remove. She reveals her scheme to the younger woman and pleads for her to help take off the mask. The younger woman agrees to remove the mask after the older woman promises not to interfere with her relationship with Hachi. After failing to pull it off, the young woman breaks off the mask with a mallet. Under the mask, the older woman's face is now disfigured, as the samurai's had been. The younger woman, thinking her mother-in-law has turned into a demon, flees; the older woman runs after her, crying out that she is a human being, not a demon. The young woman leaps over the pit, and as the older woman leaps after her, the film ends.


Most of the cast consisted of members of Shindo's regular group of performers, Nobuko Otowa, Kei Satō, Taiji Tonoyama, and Jūkichi Uno. This was Jitsuko Yoshimura's only appearance in a Shindo film. The two women do not have names even in the script, but are merely described as "middle-aged woman" and "young woman".[3]

Genre classification[edit]

Many critics have been divided on the genre of the film. While Onibaba is regarded a "period drama" by David Robinson,[4] or "stage drama" by Japanese film scholar Keiko I. McDonald,[5] Phil Hardy included it in his genre compendium as a horror film,[6] and Chuck Stephens describes it as an erotic-horror classic.[7] Writing for Sight & Sound, Michael Brooke noted that "Onibaba's lasting greatness and undimmed potency lie in the fact that it works both as an unnervingly blunt horror film (and how!) and as a far more nuanced but nonetheless universal social critique that can easily be applied to an parallel situation".[8]

Keiko I. McDonald stated that the film contained elements of the Noh theatre. She notes that the han'nya mask "is used to demonize the sinful emotions of jealousy and its associative emotions" in Noh plays, and that the differing camera angles at which the mask is filmed in Onibaba are similar to the way in which a Noh performer uses the angle of the mask to indicate emotions.[9] Other reviewers also speculate about Noh influences on the film.[10][11]


The film was shot at the Inba Marsh in Chiba Prefecture, Japan

Onibaba was inspired by the Shin Buddhist parable of yome-odoshi-no men (嫁おどしの面, bride-scaring mask) or niku-zuki-no-men (肉付きの面, mask with flesh attached), in which a mother used a mask to scare her daughter from going to the temple. She was punished by the mask sticking to her face, and when she begged to be allowed to remove it, she was able to take it off, but it took the flesh of her face with it.[12]

Kaneto Shindo wanted to film Onibaba in a field of susuki grass. He sent out assistant directors to find suitable locations.[13] Once a location was found near a river bank at Inba Swamp in Chiba Prefecture, they put up prefabricated buildings to live in.[14] Filming started on June 30, 1964, and continued for three months.[15] Shindo built things such as a makeshift turtle water slide to entertain the crew and keep things cool during harsh conditions of filming out in the fields of nowhere. The crew members were doing laundry and living in the fabricated buildings during the filming. The crew members grouping and eating together things like onigiri and soba noodles was caught on camera.[16]

They had a rule that if somebody left they would not get any pay, to keep the crew motivated to continue. Shindo included dramatized scenes of the dissatisfaction on the set as part of the 2000 film By Player.[citation needed]

To film night scenes inside the huts, they would put up screens to block the sun, and changing the shot would require setting the screens in a completely different spot.[17]

Kaneto Shindo said that the effects of the mask on those who wear it are symbolic of the disfigurement of the victims of the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film reflecting the traumatic effect of this visitation on post-war Japanese society.[13]

A makeshift tower where crew members could climb to look down and film using crane shots was built. The tower was tall enough to get a look around the entire field.[16]

The film contains some sequences filmed in slow motion.[18]

The scenes of the older woman descending in to the hole had to be shot using an artificial "hole" built above ground with scaffolding, since holes dug in the ground at the location site would immediately fill with water.[15]


Onibaba's score is by Shindo's long-term collaborator Hikaru Hayashi. The background and title music consists of Taiko drumming combined with jazz.[19][20]


Onibaba was released in Japan on November 21, 1964, where it was distributed by Toho.[2] The film was released in the United States by Toho International with English subtitles on February 4, 1965.[2] An English-dubbed version was produced by Toho, but any actual release of it is undetermined.[2] On the films initial theatrical release in the United Kingdom, the film was first rejected by the BBFC on its first submission, and then released in a heavily edited form after its second submission."[8]

Home media[edit]

It was released as a Region 1 DVD on March 16, 2004, in the Criterion Collection.[20] A Region 2 DVD was released in 2005 as part of the Masters of Cinema series.

Critical response[edit]

From contemporary reviews, the Monthly Film Bulletin observed that "Shindo obviously likes to milk his situations for all they are worth—and then some," noting that "Onibaba has the same striking surface as [Ningen and The Naked Island]," and that the film "has the same tendency to fall apart if examined too closely."[21] The review praised Kuroda's "fine photography" but said that nothing else "in the film quite matches this opening among the reeds, or its aftermath in the ruthless stripping of the victims and disposal of their corpses, except perhaps the encounter between the old woman and the General."[21] "Wear" of Variety described it as the "sexiest pic to be unveiled in New York so far," noting that Nobuko Otowa is superb as the older woman while Jitsuko Yoshimura contribs an excellent characterization as the daughter-in-law."[22] The review declared it "sometimes high adventure and exciting, at other times dull in its so-called symbolism. Too often, this turns out to be a potpourri of ravenous eating and blatant sex."[22] A. H. Weiler of The New York Times described the film's raw qualities as "neither new nor especially inventive to achieve his stark, occasionally shocking effects. Although his artistic integrity remains untarnished, his driven rustic principals are exotic, sometimes grotesque figures out of medieval Japan, to whom a Westerner finds it hard to relate."[23] The review noted that Shindo's "symbolism, which undoubtedly is more of a treat to the Oriental than the Occidental eye and ear, may be oblique, but his approach to amour is direct... the tale is abetted by Hiyomi Kuroda's cloudy, low-key photography and Hikaru Kuroda's properly weird background musical score. But despite Mr. Shindo's obvious striving for elemental, timeless drama, it is simply sex that is the most impressive of the hungers depicted here."[23]

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, writing in 2010, commented: "Onibaba is a chilling movie, a waking nightmare shot in icy monochrome, and filmed in a colossal and eerily beautiful wilderness."[12] Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader described it as "creepy, interesting, and visually striking."[24]

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Onibaba received an approval rating of 83% based on 12 modern reviews, and an average rating of 6.7 out of 10.[25]


  1. ^ Galbraith IV 2008, p. 214.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Galbraith IV 2008, p. 215.
  3. ^ Shindo 1993, p. 242
  4. ^ Robinson, David (1975). World cinema: a short history. Methuen Young Books. p. 340. ISBN 978-0416183306.
  5. ^ McDonald 2006, p. 109: Onibaba strikes us as kind of stage drama taking its cues from folklore
  6. ^ Hardy, Phil (1996). The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror. Aurum Press. p. 165.
  7. ^ Stephens, Chuck (March 15, 2004). "Black Sun Rising". Criterion Collection. Retrieved 8 September 2012.
  8. ^ a b Brooke, Michael (April 2013). "Onibaba". Sight & Sound. Vol. 23 no. 4. British Film Institute. p. 115.
  9. ^ McDonald 2006, p. 116
  10. ^ Lowenstein, Adam (2005). Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film. Columbia University Press. p. 101.: "Shindo's use of the hannya mask and reliance on heavy drumming punctuated by human cries for Onibaba's score […] are direct quotations of Noh style."
  11. ^ Cuntz, Vera. "SheDevils - Kaneto Shindôs Onibaba & Kuroneko" (in German). Ikonen magazin. Retrieved 9 September 2012.: "Die Filme [Onibaba and Kuroneku] folgen in ihrer Schauspielkunst, Erzählstruktur und Inhalt den klassischen japanischen Nô-Stücken." ("These Films [Onibaba and Kuroneku] follow classic Japanese Noh Plays in the ways of acting, narrative structure and content.")
  12. ^ a b Bradshaw, Peter (15 October 2010). "Sex, death and long grass in Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 February 2012.
  13. ^ a b Shindo, Kaneto (Director) (2008-05-15). Onibaba, DVD Extra: Interview with the director (DVD). Criterion Collection.
  14. ^ Shindo, Kaneto (2008). Ikite iru kagiri Watashi no Rirekisho [While I live: my resume] (in Japanese). Nihon Keizai Shimbunsha. ISBN 978-4-532-16661-8.
  15. ^ a b Shindo 1993, pp. 149–187
  16. ^ a b "鬼婆 撮影現場1". YouTube. Retrieved 13 June 2020.
  17. ^ Kuroda, Kiyomi (Cinematography) (2008-05-15). Onibaba, DVD Extra: Making of feature (DVD). Criterion Collection.
  18. ^ McDonald 2006, p. 113: a sudden slowing in the shot
  19. ^ Film 4. "Onibaba (1964) - Film Review from Film4". Film 4. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  20. ^ a b "The Criterion Collection: Onibaba by Kaneto Shindo".
  21. ^ a b Milne, T.M. (1966). "Onibaba (The Hole), Japan, 1964". Monthly Film Bulletin. Vol. 33 no. 384. British Film Institute. pp. 180–181.
  22. ^ a b Variety's Film Reviews 1964–1967. 11. R. R. Bowker. 1983. There are no page numbers in this book. This entry is found under the header "February 10, 1965". ISBN 0-8352-2790-1.
  23. ^ a b Weiler, A.H. (February 10, 1965). "The Hole (1964) Onibaba at Toho". New York Times. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  24. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Onibaba". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 8 September 2012.
  25. ^ "Onibaba (1965)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved January 11, 2019.


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