Onibaba (film)

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

Onibaba (鬼婆, lit. 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 wounded soldiers flee from pursuers on horseback in an enormous field of thick reeds which are taller than a man. Suddenly the soldiers are killed with spears by unseen assailants. Two women appear, take the soldiers' armour and weapons, and drop the bodies in a deep hole. The women return to a small hut and rest, exhausted from the activity. The next day they take the armor and weapons to a merchant named Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama) 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 (Kei Satō), who has been at war, returns. The older woman (Nobuko Otowa) asks Hachi about her son, Kishi, who was forced to be a soldier along with Hachi. Kishi is the husband of the younger woman (Jitsuko Yoshimura). Hachi tells about his experience in two fights, where general Takauji Ashikaga attacked his division. He says that he and Kishi deserted. Later, Kishi was killed when they were caught stealing food from farmers, while Hachi barely escaped. The older woman warns the younger woman to stay away from Hachi, whom she blames for her son's death.

One beautiful day, the younger woman is at the lake when Hachi approaches her, offering fish. He shows interest in her sexually and makes advances before the older woman interrupts. They then see two samurai chasing one another and fighting on horseback. The samurai jump in the lake and keep fighting, swimming closer to the three as they go. As one samurai approaches, asking for help, Hachi stabs him to death with his spear. He then orders the women to get the other man, whom they drown in the lake. The two women take their armour as before and Hachi sells it to Ushi, giving them their first substantial meal in a long time. Despite being warned to stay away from Hachi, the young woman is seduced by him and sneaks out of her hut every night to 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 the young woman away, since she cannot kill without her help.

One night, while Hachi and the young woman are together, a lost samurai wearing a demon (Hannya) mask (Jūkichi Uno) forces the older woman to guide him out of the swamp. He claims to wear the mask to protect his face, the most handsome in the land, 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. Under the mask he is horribly disfigured, which the older woman notes with spite. As she leaves, the older woman then gets an idea to keep her daughter-in-law away from Hachi.

At night, as the young woman goes to see Hachi, the older woman blocks her path, wearing the samurai's robes and mask, frightening the woman 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 the devastated old woman watches from afar. 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 young woman and pleads for her to help take off the mask. The young 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 hammer. Under the mask, the older woman's face is covered with sores, as the samurai's had been. The young woman thinks the older woman has turned into a demon, and 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]


The story takes place shortly after the Battle of Minatogawa which began a period of over 50 years of civil war, the Nanboku-chō period (1336 to 1392). Hachi tells of an attack from general Takauji Ashikaga, who came to power in the 1330s.

The story of 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.[4]

Kaneto Shindo wanted to film Onibaba in a field of susuki grass. He sent out assistant directors to find suitable locations.[5] Once a location was found near a river bank at Inba-Numa in Chiba, they put up prefabricated buildings to live in.[6] Filming started on 30 June 1964 and continued for three months.[7]

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.[8]

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.[5]

The film contains some sequences filmed in slow motion.[9]

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.[7]


Onibaba's score is by Shindo's long-term collaborator Hikaru Hayashi. The background and title music consists of Taiko drumming combined with jazz.[10][11]


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."[12]

Home media[edit]

It was released as a Region 1 DVD on March 16, 2004 in the Criterion Collection.[11] A Region 2 DVD was released in 2005 as part of the Masters of Cinema series.

Critical response[edit]

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Onibaba received an approval rating of 83% based on 12 reviews, and an average rating of 6.7/10.[13]

From contemporary reviews, the Monthly Film Bulletin" noted 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".[14] The review praised Kuroda's "fine photography" but noted 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."[14] "Wear." of Variety described as "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"[15] 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."[15] 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."[16] 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."[16]

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian says "Onibaba is a chilling movie, a waking nightmare shot in icy monochrome, and filmed in a colossal and eerily beautiful wilderness".[4] Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader described it as "creepy, interesting, and visually striking".[17]

Genre classification[edit]

Many critics have been divided on the genre of the film. While Onibaba is regarded a "period drama" by David Robinson,[18] or "stage drama" by Japanese film scholar Keiko I. McDonald,[19] Phil Hardy included it in his genre compendium as a horror film,[20] and Chuck Stephens describes it as an erotic-horror classic.[21] 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"[12]

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.[22] Other reviewers also speculate about Noh influences on the film.[23][24]


  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. ^ a b Bradshaw, Peter (15 October 2010). "Sex, death and long grass in Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 February 2012.
  5. ^ a b Shindo, Kaneto (Director) (2008-05-15). Onibaba, DVD Extra: Interview with the director (DVD). Criterion Collection.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ a b Shindo 1993, pp. 149–187
  8. ^ Kuroda, Kiyomi (Cinematography) (2008-05-15). Onibaba, DVD Extra: Making of feature (DVD). Criterion Collection.
  9. ^ McDonald 2006, p. 113: a sudden slowing in the shot
  10. ^ Film 4. "Onibaba (1964) - Film Review from Film4". Film 4. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  11. ^ a b "The Criterion Collection: Onibaba by Kaneto Shindo".
  12. ^ a b Brooke, Michael (April 2013). "Onibaba". Sight & Sound. Vol. 23 no. 4. British Film Institute. p. 115.
  13. ^ "Onibaba (1965)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  14. ^ a b Milne, T.M. (1966). "Onibaba (The Hole), Japan, 1964". Monthly Film Bulletin. Vol. 33 no. 384. British Film Institute. pp. 180–181.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ a b Weiler, A.H. (February 10, 1965). "The Hole (1964) Onibaba at Toho". New York Times. Retrieved 3 September 2012.
  17. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Onibaba". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 8 September 2012.
  18. ^ Robinson, David (1975). World cinema: a short history. Methuen Young Books. p. 340. ISBN 978-0416183306.
  19. ^ McDonald 2006, p. 109: Onibaba strikes us as kind of stage drama taking its cues from folklore
  20. ^ Hardy, Phil (1996). The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror. Aurum Press. p. 165.
  21. ^ Stephens, Chuck (March 15, 2004). "Black Sun Rising". Criterion Collection. Retrieved 8 September 2012.
  22. ^ McDonald 2006, p. 116
  23. ^ 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."
  24. ^ 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.")


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