Starring: Nobuko Otowa, Jitsuko Oshimura, Kei Sato, Taiji Tonoyama
Not Rated (Probable R for Some Violence and Language and Sexuality/Nudity, although I'd give it a PG-13)
When it comes to classics, it's really a shot in the dark if you're not a critic. Some are timeless and have aged well. "Casablanca" is one such film. Some were probably good for their time, but with improved technology, they seem dated. "The Wages of Fear" belongs in this category. Others were shit to begin with. "Shane" is one of those. While not nearly as dreadful as George Stevens's wretched western, "Onibaba" is still a waste of time.
The film takes place in an unspecified time, but it's probably during feudal Japan. There is a war going on, which makes starvation one of many real worries for those not fighting. Two women are struggling to survive without Kichi, the man they share in common. They are Kichi's mother (Otowa) and Kichi's wife (Oshimura). To make ends meet, they kill wayward samurai and sell their armor to Ushi (Tonoyama) in exchange for food or other provisions they need. One day, a neighbor and friend of Kichi's, a man named Hachi (Sato), returns home. He tells them that Kichi was killed in action, and asks to stay with them. Kichi's mother doesn't like him and sends him to his own home. Kichi's wife, on the other hand, finds him attractive (despite the fact that he all but sexually harasses her). When she begins an affair with Hachi, her mother in law takes it personally.
There's nothing wrong with the premise. It's a solid, if not terribly original, idea for a story. Unfortunately, the film moves at a crawl, and writer/director Kaneto Shindo knows nothing of term "atmosphere." There are a few pretty images, but most movies can boast at least that much. There are a number of editing gaffes, including one murder that is edited so badly that it could provoke laughter. It comes early on, so the majority of viewers won't be asleep yet.
It certainly doesn't help matters that none of the three lead actors are especially interesting. Nobuko Otowa plays the film's central character, although Kichi's mother isn't terribly compelling. She's alternately suspicious, possessive and jealous, but doesn't display much in the way of ability or charisma. Jitsuko Oshimura is little more than a plot device, and spends half her screen time running from one house to the other. The best, a term I use loosely, performance is given by Kei Sato, which is impressive since his character is a drunken lout who occasionally screams and writhes on the ground for no apparent reason.
iMDb has listed "Onibaba" as a horror movie, but that's a misnomer; a better comparison would be the arthouse film "Far North" with Sean Bean and Michelle Yeoh (it's a better movie, although considering how bad Asif Kapadia's film was, that's not really a compliment). It's not especially scary, and up until the final 20 minutes, it's not intended to be. There's a hole in the ground that is set up early on as the "Doorway to Hell" (and yes, the film does get philosophical, and not to the film's benefit since its ideas are obvious and simply take up time), but it has a decidedly non-supernatural explanation to it.
Trust me. Regardless of whether or not you're looking for a horror movie, skip this one.