In the midst of ancient Japan, an old woman and her daughter are left living alone while the men go to war. In order to survive, the women kill unsuspecting warriors and sell their armor for money. However, soon the young girl falls in love with a handsome warrior who has returned from battle. Fearful that her daughter might leave her, the mother conjures up a plan in order to end her daughter's relationship with the warrior. The film's conclusion is terrifying.
Using both fabulous setting and black & white cinematography, Onibaba is an example of skillful filmmaking. The entire film takes place in the swampy fields where the grass stands high and the moon shines brightly. Fortunately, the camera catches all there is to see, while at the same time, masterfully using both lighting and shadow to achieve the picture's elegant effects. Whether the camera is sweeping through the high grass or featuring a character's well lit face, the angles are superb and quite effective. Also effective are the film's loud, powerful sounds and music which create tension during specific scenes of terror.
But perhaps the film's best quality is the truth and morals it presents. Onibaba gives us a detailed glimpse of the life of two female peasants during medieval Japan. We see their way of life during a scene in which they spot a cute, innocent dog running through the fields. However, to them, the dog is a source of food. Consequently, they capture it, skin it, and eat it. Scenes like this may make us cringe. However, at the same time, the film provides a detailed view of the emotions all human beings of all classes and ethnic backgrounds experience. The emotions of love, hate, fear, sadness, and lust.
Eroticism is a major theme in Onibaba, as the film masterfully combines sex with terror. As her daughter sneaks off each night to make love to the returned warrior, the old woman preaches to her daughter that sex before marriage is a sin. In attempt to frighten her daughter, the woman tells of the demons that lurk in Hell and the consequences one pays for his/her sins. Ironically, by the film's end, it is the old woman who experiences her own teachings the hard way.
Kaneto Shindo uses psychological horror along with some frightening visual images to achieve the film's terror and shock value. The film's magnificent setting and cinematography alone make it a wonderful picture. However, the film also presents a view of human emotions and truths about life. Although it may not be able to match up with the greatness of Kwaidan (few films can), Onibaba is a true piece of art in Japanese cinema and is well worth recommending.