(1968) Written and directed by Kaneto Shindô; Starring: Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi and Kei Satô; Available on DVD and Blu-Ray
Rating: **** ½
Kuroneko, translated as “black cat,” is a somber, lyrical tale of devotion and sacrifice. Poetic and beautifully haunting, it’s akin to glimpsing a faded photograph, observing the shades and attempting to enter its unique, inaccessible world. By employing Japanese theatrical conventions and painting with an expressionistic canvas, the film represents a skewed interpretation of reality, rather than an attempt to duplicate reality itself.
The screenplay for Kuroneko was partially based on an old folk story, “The Cat’s Revenge,” which was combined with old samurai legends. According to Japanese film critic Tadao Sato, writer/director Kaneto Shindô often depicted the samurai as oafish and arrogant, in sharp contrast to their typical heroic status in pop culture. The samurai in Kuroneko (with one notable exception) are anything but brave or honorable, looking down on the same peasants they’re supposed to protect, and taking whatever they desire. Shindô’s populist sympathies are plainly aligned with the commoners, who only exist to be exploited.
Shige and Yone (Kiwako Taichi and Nobuko Otowa, respectively), a young woman and her mother in law living alone in a rural hut, are raped and killed by a roving band of samurai warriors. The samurai leave the flaming house like a swarm of locusts that have scourged a field of sustenance. In the following scene, a black cat traipses through the smoldering wreckage, walking over the bodies of the slain women, signaling their ascendancy into the ethereal world. They re-emerge as vengeful spirits (yokai), intent on killing all samurai and drinking their blood. Shige lures any samurai who happen to wander by into a spectral house, which appears out of a shadowy bamboo forest. Yone performs a mournful dance as Shige methodically seduces the mesmerized warriors one by one, and delivers a killing blow to their throats. It doesn’t take long for news of the bloody deaths to reach the local warlord Raiko (Kei Satô).
Yone’s son Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), who was forcibly conscripted into service for the tyrant Raiko three years ago, emerges triumphantly from the battlefield. Gintoki is an honorable man, haunted by his allegiance to Raiko, and reluctantly accepts his assignment to seek out the root of the unseen assailants, and rid the samurai of this threat. In his quest, he returns to his home village, only to discover that his home (along with his wife and mother) has been burned to the ground. He encounters two women who resemble his dead wife and mother, and concludes that he must be the recipient of some ghostly trick. He resigns himself to the truth that they are not what they seem, but he is compelled by his grief to pursue them. Shige might not be the same person, but their love endures. Their memories are enough to revive the bond that existed between them. They engage in a brief, intensely passionate, but ill-fated tryst. Re-igniting their love comes only at a terrible price.
In contrast to Gintoki’s allegiance to love and family, Raiko admires power above all else, believing that he’s entitled to do whatever he wants. He’s blinded by the delusion that the peasants admire the samurai, and that they should be grateful for the protection that’s afforded to them. He sees nothing honorable about the peasants, viewing them as something less than human. He reminds Gintoki that he was once a lowly farmer, and wouldn’t be admired by women if not for his samurai status. When informed that malevolent spirits were the cause of the murdered samurai, Raiko is incredulous that they would defy his order.
Stark lighting, fog and shadows herald the intersection of the spiritual and tangible worlds. Kiyomi Kuroda’s beautiful black and white cinematography creates an appropriately dreamlike atmosphere. The film’s stunning appearance is accompanied by Hikaru Hayashi’s eerie score, with musical cues that ominously signal impending doom (leading me to speculate if Hayashi’s score could have influenced some of the cues for the ghostly occurrences in The Shining).
Kuroneko’s horror is refreshingly subtle, propelled by tone and ideas rather than cheap scares. It reminds us that our hearts and imagination are the best tools for perceiving whatever lies beyond everyday reality. Shindô guides us through a nightmarish realm that lies within the domain of the spirits. Kuroneko is a film not only to be watched, but experienced.