After the huge acclaim heaped upon his classic 1964 horror masterpiece “Onibaba” – which was the recipient of numerous awards across the world festival circuit in the wake of its international release -- it was natural to expect that director, producer and screenwriter Kaneto Shindo would one day come to explore again the same evocative mixture of traditional ghostly Japanese fable and black & white, Western-influenced Gothic horror imagery that had previously so entranced audiences and critics alike. “Onibaba” had constituted a startling coming together of the pared down minimalist realism which had marked Shindo’s first major success, “The Naked Island” in 1960 (which had saved Shindo’s failing production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai, from bankruptcy), with expressionistic, otherworldly supernatural elements drawing on traditional Japanese theatre traditions and Western Gothic tropes alike, producing a film that, at the time, broke new ground in its on-screen dealings with the subject of human sexuality and its deeply primal roots.
Just as the film retold a piece of traditional Buddhist folklore using a stark modernist style, so the historical 14th century civil war period setting visibly alluded to the social and environmental conditions under which many Japanese people had found themselves forced to cope in the aftermath of World War II. The film’s bleak depiction of the reduced circumstances blighting a medieval rural peasant population, struggling for its very survival against impoverishing forces implicitly beyond its control, had a clear resonance with Japan's plight in the wake of Hiroshima and Nakisaki. However, Shindo’s attempts to expand on the challenging eroticism which had also been an explicit feature of “Onibaba”, when he followed up with a series of films which attempted to focus on human sexuality even more forensically, failed to capture the imagination of the public quite as comprehensively as this memorably mysterious period fable of human endurance and desperate lust, with macabre supernatural overtones. But in 1968, Shindo finally relented and released a second work that drew from the same brimming well of folklore, theatre and tradition that had informed his previous horror masterpiece, with an even more stylised evocation of its familiar themes ...
“Kuroneko” is unambiguously intended to be viewed as a companion piece to “Onibaba”. For one thing, almost all of the key members of the latter film’s crew return for this follow-up, most prominently the director of photography Kiyomi Kuroda and composer Hikaru Hayashi; cast members such as Shindo’s production partner Taiji Tonoyama appear once again, as does, of course, the director’s wife and muse Nobuko Otowa -- who is once more conspicuous in her involvement, playing one of the ghostly female leads. Based loosely on the Japanese folkloric tale The Cat’s Return (the film’s Japanese title was “Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko” or “Black Cat inside a Bamboo Grove”), the simple scenario Shindo conceived for the screenplay initially draws upon a presumed familiarity with the premise of the previous film, and then plays out as a heightened, mythical variation upon it, which this time deals with class division, the family, and conflicts of loyalty induced by the turmoil of war rather than the more primal aspects of the human will tackled in “Onibaba”.
In that respect the film becomes much more of a story rooted in legend and traditional storytelling ideas than its predecessor, affecting a lyrical, stylised Gothic ambience which draws more freely from the sort of Western horror and fairy tale tropes only intermittently brought forth for “Onibaba”, and in a form previously realised for the screen by the likes of Jean Cocteau (in his 1946 classic “La Belle et la Bête", for instance). “Kuroneko” effectively combines such influences with the ritualistic performance aspects of Noh theatre and the elaborately stylised, gaudy ‘excesses’ of the Kabuki tradition. Hayashi’s score follows suit, replacing the anachronistic modernist jazz tones of “Onibaba” with music that alternates between pounding, adrenalin-pumping tribal drums and cues that sound like they could just as easily have been written for a Hollywood melodrama, veering between brassy rhythmic pieces that sound like they belong in a Western and lush romantic orchestral cues which emphasise this film’s concern with more elevated emotions than the earthy, primordial desires governing the actions of the protagonists in its predecessor.
Nevertheless, we are starkly reminded of that last film in the opening moments of “Kuroneko”: the same setting and period of civil war and anarchy which historically locates the events depicted throughout “Onibaba” is once again used as the backdrop in this story, but the metaphorical imagery of eternally swaying fields of pampas grass which informed everything that happened in the latter film, is visually rhymed early on with a shot of the leaves of a forest of bamboo stalks churning in a night breeze while viewed from below, reminding the viewer of the flat, undifferentiated landscape of sun-scorched, wind-torn bleakness that formed the landscape of “Onibaba”, while contrasting its harsh uninviting realism and immediacy with the inky Gothic tones from which this key-lit chiaroscuro netherworld of expressionistic shadows has been constructed to provide a principle setting for “Kuroneko” that is infinitely more rooted in the uncanny, the macabre and the supernatural. Nobuko Otowa is once again the penniless mother of an absent son, just as she was in “Onibaba”. Again the mother co-habits with her daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) in a small thatch dwelling, this time situated on the edge of a bamboo grove, where they both live simply, waiting for their loved one to return. The husband and son of the two women was a farmer who has since been taken away from his land by shoguns forcibly conscripting from the starving peasant population and compelling them to take part in the endless rounds of inter-clan fighting which marred this period of Japanese militarism and anarchy during the 14th century. However, while in “Onibaba” the same set-up was used as the prelude to an examination of the mother & daughter’s animalistic urge to survive in the midst of extreme poverty -- the ambiguous threat of the supernatural mainly being seen as a means of control and revenge -- here the women protagonists become the victims of a breakdown in civil society and morality which occurs in times of hardship, when the rule of law is replaced by the primacy of the strong against the powerlessness of the weak. They are raped and murdered by a hungry gang of displaced Samurai warriors who emerge from the forest to invade their land and their humble dwelling while looking for supplies after having fought a brutal battle, and who then leave the stricken bodies of their defenceless victims behind in the looted and burned-out wreckage of their former home.
The eerie, stately, evenly paced passage of events illustrated by the film is introduced in an almost wordless opening sequence that enacts this violent struggle. Shindo’s style is more reminiscent of his mentor Kenji Mizoguchi this time round, with the use of long single takes and extended tracking shots through the bamboo forest imbuing proceedings with a graceful but bleak fatalism that belies the ugliness of the initial atrocity committed by these stray warrior-marauders. A lengthy single shot of the two women’s home, seen from an elevated position as, one by one, the samurai renegades emerge from out of the darkness to descend upon its unsuspecting inhabitants, seems to last for several minutes, the silence prolonging the tension of the scene. The rhythm of the film throughout is marked by gliding tracking shoots which establish atmosphere but also act as pauses in the action. The ensuing fate of the mother and daughter is portrayed in a series of fluidly edited close-up shots, contrasting the avaricious expressions on the killers and looters faces with the struggles of the outmatched women. As the gang melt away into the dawn, the flames silently catch in the wind as the dwelling burns around the bodies of the murdered women, subtly foreshadowing the eerie, supernatural drifts of smoke-like fog which hereafter will attend the couple’s spectral reappearances as demonic cat demons who are sworn to seek out and destroy all Samurai who cross their path in a revenge pact brokered by the forces of the underworld.
The film thus establishes itself as a non-naturalistic supernatural tale, mixing the popular Japanese ‘ghost cat’ kaibyo subgenre (a popular subject matter for Kabuki plays of the nineteenth century and for a large series of Japanese supernatural cat films produced in the 1950s) with elements of the modern vampire movie, more familiar from western culture. A faint, disturbing aura of necrophilia attends the means by which the couple come to be re-born in their ghostly incarnations, after the charred remains of their bodies are viewed being nursed and guarded by the family’s black cat as it slinks through the smoking wreckage of their destroyed home. The cat is the film’s symbol of the lowly scavenging peasantry, akin to the starving people of the land who’re seen emerging from the forest shadows periodically to loot the armour from the mutilated bodies of the vampire cat spirits’ victims -- just as the mother and daughter from “Onibaba” had once done.
The middle section of the film consists of a poetic, visually stunning evocation of the uncanny spectral realm the dead women now inhabit, as they entice each member of the gang responsible for their molestation and death towards their own elegantly stylised dooms. The forest of bamboo stalks becomes a fog-shrouded nocturnal walkway that leads each unsuspecting victim to the cat spirits’ labyrinthine lair, where they are each then plied with saké and the prospect of closer relations with the daughter spirit, before ending up with their throats ripped out and their bodies left discarded in the brooding forest of bamboo stems -- later to be stripped and scavenged by the poor as the mother spirit performs stylised Noh theatre movements in her ghostly quarters. The pace of this section is diligently unvarying, mesmerisingly scored by Hikaru’s metronomic drumming and another fabulous sound design full of atmospheric ambient noises which animate the inky forest depths with unseen horrors, providing unearthly aural accompaniment for the graceful wirework that adds immeasurably to the silky mysteriousness of this work.
The content here is deliberately repetitive, as it is meant simply to highlight the twilight limbo of vengeance for which the two ghosts now exist: each of their Samurai victims is first enticed by the spectral beauty of the ghost daughter, who appears to them out of the impenetrable night as a beguiling apparition in a white kimono, lit by moonlight in the dark of the groves. She preys on the Samurai sense of importance, begging each potential victim to provide her with an escort back to her secluded forest home. Each of the women’s former murderers have been blessed with status and high social standing as a result of their involvement with the post-war shogunate which now rules through military might; and they now see themselves as respectable upholders of the law. But the eerie, mysterious forest surroundings and the elegance of the women’s spectral floating movements seem to lull each one of these unpunished killers into a false sense of security that leads them to reveal the more wanton side of their natures, which previously they have managed to mask with their current social rank. Once the two vampire spirits have induced their ‘guest’ to reveal these base aspects underpinning their true selves, it’s generally curtains for each one of them!
Beautiful, dreamlike and intensely lyrical in its use of fluttering, spectral wirework enhanced by high key-lighting and velvety black shadows, this middle section of “Kuroneko” constitutes some of the most visually impressive work in the horror genre, recalling the baroque extravagance of Bava at his finest but combining the Gothic style with macabre elements that are unique to Japanese horror and the jidai-geki genre, rendering the movie a powerful gateway between the realm of poetic tragedy evinced by Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu Monogatari” and that of Bava’s “Black Sunday”. The uniquely Japanese concerns of the material become more apparent in the lengthy final act, though, when the film switches gear and we are introduced to Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura), a former peasant farmer who has since been flung into the desperate maelstrom which constitutes a war conscript’s life, and who is determined to survive its perils and hardships no matter what. In a scene that recalls the setting and realist approach of most of “Onibaba”, Hachi gets lucky in a messy battle with an enemy general (fought amongst similar towering reeds of pampas grass) and manages to kill his pursuer, retrieving the general’s head to take back to his governor Raiko (Kei Sato) as proof of his battle victory, which he claims under the name Gintoki. Raiko makes ‘Gintoki’ a fully-fledged Samurai; the change of social status this entails could not be more explicitly represented than it is here, as we see the muddied, dishevelled farmer being washed down and groomed by attentive geisha, with the promise of his pick of any of the women later -- such is the privilege of this ruling elite!
Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Gintoki is the husband and the son of the two murdered women long-since transmogrified into Samurai-slaying cat spirits. This is confirmed when he rides home to find his house has vanished, with only the burned out shell of it remaining. However, when Governor Raiko is summoned to the Imperial Palace and charged by the Emperor with the job of seeking out the culprits responsible for the recent spate of Samurai killings outside the Rajomon Gate, Raiko gives Gintoki the job! The film thus becomes a romantic tragedy, in which the denizens of both the spectral realm and the corporeal world alike are portrayed as being equally bound by obligations born of rules that neither may contravene. Gintoki’s meeting with each of the ghosts (who he soon realises were once his wife and mother in life) lead to very different outcomes -- but each also leads all three protagonists inevitably towards tragedy. Romance and the macabre mix in equal measure during this striking final act of the movie, where previously glimpsed cat-like qualities in the ghosts become more pronounced -- particularly in a final ‘show down’ between Gintoki and his mother, when the cat spirit tricks its way into the locked temple in which Gintoki has been performing purification rituals in front of the severed limb of the mother ghost which has transformed itself afterwards into the leg of a big cat! The ghost mother snatches the leg away in her mouth, betraying uncanny feline qualities alongside those of the mother, and evades Gintoki’s katana with fantastic cat leaps, eventually crashing through the roof and disappearing vertically into the night sky in one of the most dynamic, spectacular sequences in 1960s cinema.
“Kuroneko” remains a striking and enchanting piece of filmmaking and looks very good in HD, although the film’s use of deep shadow contrasted with very high-key lights to emphasise the otherworldly qualities of the ghostly cat vampires, inevitably means fine detail is lost somewhat. This is probably a quality inherent in the original film though, rather than a question mark over the transfer. The only extra here is a theatrical trailer but the accompanying booklet contains an excellent essay/analysis of the film by Doug Cummings and part three of an interview with Kaneto Shindo conducted by Joan Mellen in 1972. The extras may be light on this Masters of Cinema release, but the film is an essential piece of Japanese horror history.
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