(1968) director Kaneto Shindô
viewed: 11/26/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
Like his 1964 film, Onibaba, writer/director Kaneto Shindô’s Kuroneko is also set during the Muromachi period in Japan, against the backdrop of a war-ravaged world that has left many in poverty. Also, like Onibaba, the film stars Nobuko Otowa as a mother whose son has been conscripted forcibly into the military, leaving her and her young daughter-in-law to fend for themselves. And like Onibaba as well, Kuroneko is a horror film of sorts, a ghost story. In fact, it makes an excellent pairing with Shindô’s earlier film.
Unlike Onibaba, Kuroneko is a much more theatrical film, though I couldn’t tell you if it was Kabuki or Noh or even something else that influences the style of the film. Onibaba‘s setting in the reeds tied the earthiness and grittiness of reality, adding a naturalism to the film. And Kuroneko begins similarly, with a house at the edge of a woods, where the mother and her daughter-in-law are living since the son was taken away. A band of starving, lusting soldiers, samurai burst in upon them out of nowhere, steal their food, rape and murder them, and burn their house to the ground. Their sweaty, leering faces, echo heavily of Shindô’s vision of humanity from his earlier film.
But what the soldiers have wrought is vengeance upon themselves. The women are visited by a spirit in the form of a black cat, and make a pact with the evil forces, allowing them to return from the dead to hunt and kill, drink the blood, of all samurai that they can lay their claws upon. They meet them outside one potentate’s gate, lead them into the forest, to their ghostly home, intoxicate, seduce and slay them.
Much like a traditional ghost story, steeped with irony, the son survives his experience in the army, eventually earning himself a name and a title, becoming a samurai himself. Once this is so, he returns to the head of his military clan and is given great honor. He is also assigned to destroy the blood-thirsty ghosts that are killing his fellow samurai.
He comes to find that it is his wife and mother who are the ghostly villains. He also comes to understand how it came to be that they are now vengeful ghosts, but he is caught between his love for his wife and mother and his duty against death to destroy them.
All told, it’s an elegant ghost story, shot in dramatic black and white. Perhaps not quite as thought-provoking as its recommended companion film, Onibaba, but quite a good film. Quite worth seeing.