Just like his great “Onibaba” (1963), Kaneto Shindo‘s masterful “Kuroneko” is a beautifully lurid and creepily atmospheric ghost story, tinged with subtle political gravitas, and vengeful feminist empowerment. In “Onibaba,” a mother/daughter pair would await in a post-war field of whispering reeds, where they would ambush rogue samurai, strip them of their armor, and kill them. Eventually a ghost appears to complicate matters, and a bestial lothario’s seduction skills threatened to break up their little enterprise. “Kuroneko” features the same dynamic, only with more of the “ghost:” a mother/daughter team of ghosts lure samurai into a ghostly shifting house in the middle of the woods, where they drink their blood.
“Kuroneko” is just about as creepy as a horror film can get. The treks through the woods, are dimmed, borderline-surreal experiences, where samurai have entered a greenworld of danger and magic. The ghostly house where the women lives seems to, itself, shift slowly through the trees. The trees move around of their own accord. Lights burst and fade with theatrical bombast. And the women, oh the women, who are now, perhaps, partially cat (!), slip cat-like through the shadows, and flick their ponytails like cat tails. You can have all the torture or CGI monsters that you like in your horror film. The subtle, homemade haunted house feel of something like “Kuroneko” will always get to me more strongly than the obvious stuff. It’s like a combination of Sirk’s melodrama, Browning’s luridness, and the creepy alien myths of Japanese lore.
During the wars, a woman and her daughter (Nobuko Otowa and Kiwako Taichi) are raped, killed, and their house burned down, by a roving ganging of rogue samurai. The man of the house was absent, off fighting in the wars. In their final moments, a black cat somehow escapes the wreckage, and the two women hang onto life in a ghostly fashion. They swear revenge on all samurai, and will strip them of their dignity by drinking their blood. We see them seduce and destroy two samurai before the story properly gets started; I think I prefer spook movies to have more atmosphere than proper plotting.
When the absent husband (Kichiemon Nakamura) returns from his sojourn, newly promoted by the local callow feudal lord (Hideo Kanze), he is sent to dispatch the bothersome ghosts that have been pestering his vassals. There is plenty of outward doubt that what is going on is no necessarily supernatural, but, like in a Kenji Mizoguchi film, we accept that what is happening is supernatural, and kind of peacefully resign ourselves to unusual mayhem. What happens when the ghosts recognize their absent lord? Will it be vengeance or forgiveness? Not to give too much away, but it’s a combination. Needless to say, the women actually have a chance to express their female concerns, and their outward disgust with the way women are shifted aside by the modern malaise. But not before expressing their feminine needs. Shindo was a feminist through-and-through, and made some wonderful ghosts movies on the topic.
This is a frustrating film to talk about, as most of its incident is conveyed in mysterious, stirring visuals, and it’s not heavy on story. What’s more, it’s defined by its mysteries, and I don’t want to give anything away. I can, however, say that this is a great film that is worth seeing. Every fan of horror films should be familiar with Kaneto Shindo. “Kuroneko” does drag in spot, and does not have the glorious hothouse prison feeling of “Onibaba,” but it is still a great film worth seeing.