This review proves a challenge. I appreciate what Onibaba is about, and the formal rigor director Kaneto Shindô employed, but the film didn’t work for me.
Set during the Warring States era, the film presents an almost post-apocalyptic Japan trampled by constant civil war. The opening scene introduces us to an old woman and her daughter-in-law, who survive by murdering stray soldiers unfortunate enough to wander into the endless tall grass surrounding their dismal hut. It’s a miserable existence.
Enter a man, their former neighbor, who has fled the army. Soon, the daughter-in-law is sneaking out to have sex with him. Wise to the situation, the old woman fears her daughter-in-law will abandon her. Alone, the old woman believes she won’t be able to kill and will starve.
Enter a mysterious samurai wearing a kabuki mask. The old woman—well, I won’t spoil it. Suffice it to say, the film veers into horror, but without the usual puritanical overtones.
I respected the film’s craft, but I didn’t buy what it was selling. The gothic cinematography and inventive sound design create an illusion of depth, but the film proves shallow. Shindô casts his characters in a sub-human existence to better explore their primal natures, but this feels reductive. It’s no great stretch to illustrate humanity’s baser urges when you’ve already reduced them to animals.