Kaneto Shindo, “Onibaba”: Film History Series


Kaneto Shindo, “Onibaba (Demon Hag)”, 1964, Cinematogapher Kiyomi Kuroda

Born in Saeki in the Hiroshima Prefecture in April of 1912, Kaneto Shindo was a Japanese film director, screenwriter, film producer and writer. One of the pioneers of independent film production in Japan, he co-founded, with director Kōzaburō Yoshimura and actor Taiji Tonoyama, the film company Kindai Eiga Kyōkai which produced most of Shindo’s films, most notably “The Naked Island” and “Ohibaba”.

Born to wealthy landowners, Kanato Shindo was the youngest of four children. His father was a loan guarantor; however, he went bankrupt and all family members, now living in a storehouse, had to seek employment to support the household. Shindo’s mother worked as an agricultural worker until her death in his early childhood. Living with his brother in 1933, Shindo was inspired by Sadao Yamanak’s early film “Bangaku No Isshō” to seek a career in film. He saved enough money working for a year at a bicycle shop to enable his move to Kyoto, the major cultural capital of Japan.  

In Kyoto, Kanato Shindo found employment at the film developing department of Shinkō Kinema, a successful film studio and distributor in the 1930s. With access to old scripts, he studied them and their relationships to the films that were processed. When Shinkō Kinema moved to Tokyo in November of 1936, Shindo was able to get a position in its art department managed by Hiroshi Mizutani, a talented art director and production designer. For his work as an art director, he scouted and sketched locations for film shooting, cameras being less used at the time.

While working at Shochiku Film Studios after World War Two, Shindo met director Kōzaburo Yoshimura and began one of the most successful film partnerships in Japan’s postwar industry. The partnership’s first critical hit was the 1947 “A Ball at the Anjo House”, a drama film that won the prestigious Kinema Junpo Award. Both men left Shochiku Studios to form, along with actor Taiji Tonoyama, the independent film company Kindai Eiga Kyokai, which produce most of Shindo’s films. 

In 1951, Kanato Shindo made his debut as director with the autobiographical drama “Story of a Beloved Wife”, with actress Nobuko Otowa in the role of his deceased common-law wife Takako Kuji. After directing the 1952 “Avalanche”, Shindo made the 1952 “Children of Hiroshima”, a drama of a young teacher who returns to Hiroshima to find surviving friends. Premiered at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, this first Japanese film to deal with the atomic bomb was an international success. This pivotal film was followed by Shindo’s 1953 “Epitome”, whose central theme was the strength and endurance of women in times of distress.

Between 1953 and 1959, Shindo made political films that were critiques of poverty and women’s suffering in contemporary Japan. These included the 1953 “Life of a Women”, the 1954 “Dobu”, and the 1955 “Wolf”, based on a true story of desperate men and women who rob a money transport. In 1960, Shindo put all his resources into producing his “The Naked Island”, a non-dialogue black and white drama film of a struggling couple with two young sons living on a small island with no water supply. The film was awarded the Grand Prize at the Second Moscow International Film Festival in 1961.

After making “Ningen” in 1962 and “Mother” in 1963, Kanato Shindo shifted his focus as filmmaker to the individuality of a person, specifically a person’s sexual nature. From these ideas came his 1964 film “Onibaba”. Written and directed by Shindo, this historical drama-horror film was inspired by the Shin Buddhist parable of “yome-odoshi-no men”, in which a mother used a mask to scare her daughter from going to the temple. In the parable, the mother was punished by the mask sticking to her face. After begging to remove it, she was able to take it off, but the flesh of her face came with it.

“Onibaba” stars Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura as fourteenth-century Japanese peasant women living in a reed-filled marshland who survive by killing and robbing defeated samurai. Wanting to film in a field of suski grass, Shindo found his location at inna-Numa in Chiba. Filming for the black and white film started on the thirtieth of June in1964 and continued for three months. Some of the sequences were shot in slow-motion. Its background and title music consists of Taiko drumming combined with jazz.

“Onibaba” won numerous awards and the Grand Prix at the Panama Film Festival. The Award for Best Supporting Actrress went to Jitsuko Yoshimura and the Best Cinematography Award to Kiyomi Kuroda at the 1964 Blue Ribbon Awards by the Association of Tokyo Film Journalists.  

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