Two women live in a marsh. They are isolated from almost all other contact with the outside world. Their world, Japan, is torn by civil war anyway and armies march across the land- the swamp seems some kind of safe haven amidst the strife. But any samurai who strides into it risks everything- for the women are unable to make money by any other way than by murdering the samurai and taking their armour which they sell on to a local trader. The reality of their lives is pretty brutal and unpleasant. They live together on the floor of a one room hut and sleep on straw- they scurry about like beatles in the long grass and they risk continually being caught by those that they wish to capture (indeed one of the women is at one point almost killed by a samurai warrior that she meets). However they are tied together- without cooperation it is certain that both would die, without cooperation they could not kill in order to steal in order not to starve. Added to that though their lives are consumed by desire- the arrival of Hachi the best friend of the son of one woman and the husband of the other- is a knell of doom for both of them. The younger of the two immediatly falls in lust with him- his leering reminds the mother in law of a dog after a bitch- and both women animalistically desire Hachi almost immediatly. The desire creates tensions and those tensions ultimately lead to disaster.
When Hachi first enters the lives of the women they are sitting eating. The way they are eating at that particular point is significant- tearing strips of meat off a bone with their teeth. Hachi arrives as another carnivore with his and their object both being sexual desire for each other. One gets used in this film to the flowery poetic language of love being replaced by a brutal signification of desire- I want to sleep with you confesses the mother to Hachi after bearly meeting him. The other thing about this is the impermanence of the relationships- Hachi and the daughter in law enjoy moments of sexual extasy but there is no plan for the long term here- afterall what is the longterm in this environment but death. The only thing that seems long term is the neverending warfare erupting around them (which killed the son) and the swaying long tendrils of the grass which isolate these women from the rest of the world and confine their horizons to literally the fields that they live in.
Lastly it is significant to note the role of superstitition in the film: superstition is an adjunct to these lives. The girl believes in devils, her mother in law seeks to persuade her that these devils exist (it is the mother in law's way of persuading the girl not to visit Hachi in the middle of the night). Superstition is a means for the mother-in-law of convincing her daughter that the trysts in the night are not merely dangerous but they are sinful. Those superstitions are almost political devices- but what the director here shows is that whilst the supersitition is incorrect, the sense that the world is biassed against human beings is not. The very fact that the samurai blunder into this maze and never comes out reflects the vicarious nature of human existance- as does the conclusion of the film itself. In both cases it is the lusts of men and not the power of some deity that destroys.
Onibaba's title- Devil Woman translated from the Japanese- is meant ironically but it is also powerfully descriptive. This title is meant to tell us something about ourselves- it is meant to tell us that the film that we are about to see is a film about men and women as devils but also a film about how we can become devils. For these women, that cycle involves deprivation, narrowness and lusts- it involves the warping of sexual desire, animalistic sexual desire into animalistic rage and jealousy- inevitably producing a doom that swallows up everyone in a group in which to fail to cooperate is to die.