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Onibaba: Masks and Faces

<i>Onibaba: </i>Masks and Faces

Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 erotic-horror film Onibaba (which translates as “demon woman”), set in the countryside of fourteenth-century Japan and based on a Buddhist fable, initially appears to unfold in a purely allegorical space, where everything is metaphor, every element a symbol. Shindo and cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda translate the fable’s abstracted meanings into striking images, and the film’s formal audacity makes for an incredibly visceral and immediate experience. But by the end, Onibaba has forsaken allegory to reveal the primacy of vital forces that aren’t representative of anything else in the film, existing there only for their own sake: the twinned human drives of sexuality and the will to survive.

An extremely prolific screenwriter and director, the out­spokenly leftist Shindo had already become known in the fifties for films that cast an empathetic eye on modern-day characters living in poverty, and in particular on women proving resilient in the face of harsh difficulties. In keeping with those themes, Onibaba centers on a dangerous duo of women fighting to survive while men are away at war.

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