Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko, spinning a story of two vengeful female phantoms, is a movie haunted by its very own ghosts. For this visually unnerving and aesthetically accomplished 1968 chiller, those spectres are the supernatural trio of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari, Masaki Kobiyashi’s Kwaidan, and Shindo’s own Onibaba. All three previous films draw from history and folklore to spin tales of wayward humans caught between the waking world and the spirit world, and all three sit on different sides of the Japanese filmscape.
Shindo, once an assistant to Mizoguchi, merges classical techniques with the avant garde of the Japanese New Wave when constructing Kuroneko, and his references to those older films often prevent this one from really standing on its own, although it’s quite accomplished in its own right. It may feel slighter than Ugetsu, not as stylistically unique as Kwaidan, or as raw and vivd as Onibaba, but Kuroneko is still a wonderful lost work from a master of Japanese cinema.
The first thing one notices about Kuroneko is just how often it flits between worlds; the daylit corruption of the male-dominated samurai culture and the dusky dreamscape of sensual feminity oppose one another in the film’s structure and in its curious, cyclical narrative.The opening sequence is perhaps the most stunning example of Shindo’s classical influences, as a tranquil, quiet Japanese countryside is transformed by a mob of samurai slowly picking their way out of the forest like locusts decending upon a field.
The samurai set upon the two women in the farmhouse and rape and murder them, burning the home as they leave. Shindo channels Mizoguchi’s stationary camera during the onslaught, scored by the ambient sounds of the countryside. The ghoulish acts themselves occur offscreen but we are left with the no less unsettling faces of the leering men watching the heinous intrusion. There’s a quiet, sad rage building onscreen as the bodies of the young woman and her mother-in-law are left in the wreckage, largely untouched by the fire and left to be lapped at and pawed over by roaming black cats.
Shindo abandons this realism after the opening and pushes into the tantalizing realms of spirituality and mythology, retreating from human-inspired violence to the sheltering natural atmosphere of the forest, envisioned here as a fearsome and tempting otherworld that resists the misogyny and blood-soaked tragedy running rampant in feudal Japan. The following sequence, a series of repeating events, builds the details of the ghost story. Traveling warriors are being murdered outside the city gate and their mutilated corpses are being left in the dust on the road.
Yone and Shige, the murdered women from the opening, have returned via some dark curse granted them by the black cats who found their dying forms. Shige lures the samurai back to her home, offering them sake and the enticing promise of her body, and then rips out their jugulars like some wild animal, Yone performing a mournful and tragic kubuki dance on the other side of the curtain. Some of that over-stylized kubuki theater ambience finds its way into the costuming of Yone and Shige. The duo don’t just exhibit lithe, cat-like features but sometimes possess the creepy claws and furry ears of feline demons. The local prefect Raiko, a hairy, preening and mustachioed blowhard, recruits (as in orders) a rising smaurai hero named Hachi (he’s introduced to us fighting a barbarian known as the Bear) to find and eradicate the female monsters before word gets out that he can’t manage his prefecture. In a turn that buys Shindo some much-needed dramatic verve, Hachi turns out to be the son of Yone and husband of Shige, and a new dangerous dance begins when he meets up with his now ghostly family.
Kuroneko saunters around its narrative like a slinking cat in the first hour or so, and the structure of old-school Japanese filmmaking remains intact. Even the lurid eroticism that defined Onibaba seems to have been dispersed in favor of theatrical innuendo, at least as far as the murdered samurai are concerned. Shige only uses the same libidinous impulses that killed her against these samurai (representatives of the establisment), she never truly exchanges her body for vengeance.
Yone seems more somber than mournful, and her complicity is obvious although her tragic regret remains unspoken. All of that, and the general tone of the film, changes when the movie shifts gears to introduce Hachi. He’s presented in a sequence that illustrates his homecoming in heroic terms, like the swashbuckling imagery of an early Kurosawa, and there’s humor in the ineptitude and pride of Raiko. When Hachi settles down to stay with Yone and Shige, the film pulls itself out of the thrall of its influences and becomes intriguing on its own. There’s a kind of twisted intrigue in the fact he is there to kill them and they are required by the curse to destroy him,
Flesh is bared when Shige and Hachi rekindle their marital and physical love, and their writhing forms are captured either in coital close-up or as shadows beyond a veil, a representation of their frustrated, limited ardor. Yone weeps for her part in this supernatural game and her relationship as mother figure to Hachi is recharged and redefined in the film’s final reel, where a classic ghost motif—the severed arm of the monster—is utilized to embody the struggling gender war that has been tearing away under Kuroneko’s surface.
The acting and design of Kuroneko are without fault, and to observe them amidst the surrealistic and symbolic mash-up of Shindo’s melancholy fable is to look upon art. As a cohesive whole, I’m not sure Kuroneko reaches the confidence of its predecessors, or achieves as much stinging beauty. Shindo reaches an emotional crescendo with the love story, but it plays such a small part in the overall narrative that it never truly touches us. The dichotomy between nature and civilization, between man and woman, human and spirit is enticing and rich but it remains primarly a visual motif.
Visual impact is first and foremost in Kuroneko, which is why the Criterion version of the film is so powerful. The film has likely never looked better, and even if its theme moves in and out of our memory like a ghost, Shindo has made a film that will haunt your thoughts long after you’ve seen it.
For those who live in Baltimore and want to see Kuroneko on the big screen, The Charles Theater is currently showing the film tonight and again on Thursday evening as part of their terrific Revival Series. Buy your tickets here!