Japanese film director Kaneto Shindô’s 1968 black and white horror film, Kuroneko (Yabu No Naka No Kuroneko or The Black Cat From The Groves), is a film both in step with its era- especially with the horror films coming out of Italy, and those from England’s Hammer studios, yet it is also a much deeper and cinematic film. It got worldwide acclaim, upon its release, but didn’t get good stateside distribution due to the cancellation of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival where it was considered one of the strongest entries. In a sense, it shares much with another horror film released the same year, from Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, Hour Of The Wolf, wherein the dead return to prey on the living. Yet it also owes a debt to Jacques Tourneur’s classic 1942 horror masterpiece Cat People.
The film opens with a band of wandering samurai who stumble upon a thatched hut owned by a woman and her daughter-in-law. They are Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and Shige (Kiwako Taichi), and their son and husband was drafted into a war several years earlier, and they await his return. The samurai skulk in, steal food, rape and kill the women, then burn their hut to the ground. A black cat comes and licks they dead and charred remains. We then switch to see the women still alive, living in a home deep in a grove. Shige pretends to be lost, so she can seduce samurai into her bed, then rip out their throats with her teeth during sex. We see four variations on how this is accomplished, from flirtations, to the drinking of sake, to hints of nudity displayed by Shige, to a voracious sexuality. We also see Yone lapping water from a bucket like a cat. Soon, the forest they live in becomes notorious, and a warlord named Raiko Minamoto (Kei Satô), sets out to have one of his samurai hunt down the ghosts, demons, or individuals responsible for murdering his samurai.
It soon becomes clear that Yone and Shige made a deal with a demon to live again, so they could avenge themselves on samurai. The one that Minamoto sends after them turns out to be Shige’s husband and Yone’s son, Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura)- whose own backstory of slaying a seemingly invincible warrior is shown, and who rides through Rajomon Gate- the setting for Akira Kurosawa’s earlier film, Rashomon. He soon figures out that the wraiths are his dead mother and wife, but he cannot understand why they have turned evil, even after their mortal fates are discussed. When Shige seduces her husband, she restrains from killing her, even though he is, technically, a samurai. For seven nights they make love, and then, on the eighth night, Gintoki returns, having accepted that his wife is a specter, only to be told by his mother that Shige has been banished to hell for not killing him, as she had made a deal with the demon who gave them new life that she could have seven nights of passion for not living up to her promise to kill all samurai, but would spend the rest of eternity in the Netherworld. With the killings ended, Gintoki tells Minamoto of his battle with the demons, and his felling of one of them, all the while leaving out his personal connection to them.
But, with Shige banished, the killing of samurai falls upon Yone, and the murder start up again. But this time the samurai are not being seduced in a lonely forest, but in the city streets. Again, Gintoki is sent after the remaining demon, charged with destroying it under penalty of his own death. He then goes back to the house where he first met them, and battles with his demon mother, actually cutting off one of her arms, which reverts back to a large cat’s paw. He brings this to his master of his proof of success, as without it, Yone can no longer kill. Congratulated by his master, he is sent off for a seven day purification rite, in which he is locked in a building, with his mother’s severed paw as a trophy, ordered as such by his master. Just hours away from the completion of his task, upon which he will no longer be troubled by his mother’s ghost, she knocks on the door, pretending to be someone else, and he falls for her ruse, and lets her in. She then steals back her severed paw, putting it in her mouth, avoids his slashing sword, and breaks through the building’s roof and off into the night. The film thus ends on an ambiguous note; Yone has her paw back, but seems not to be able to reattach it, so, has her son won? Is she through murdering, and content to be whole again as she enters the Netherworld? Or will she be able to murder once more, even if her body part is detached? The film then ends with Gintoki heading back to the grove and the house where he first encountered the spirits, flailing his sword and calling for his mother until he dies, and we see his body in the burnt out ruins of the old hut, with snow gently falling on his corpse, as a black cat mews over his body.
The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is a little more than bare bones. There is neither an audio commentary nor and English language dubbing option, which would be a great bonus since the subtitles are in Criterion’s pedestrian white font, which often washes out against a white background, thus making it difficult to read. The only features the DVD has are the theatrical trailer, an insert booklet with a 1972 interview with Shindo, conducted by film scholar Joan Mellen and film critic Maitland McDonagh’s rather obfuscatory essay on the film. There are two good features, though. A short discussion of the film by Japanese film critic Tadao Sato, and an hour long video interview with Shindo that actually covers a good deal of his life and career and is quite interesting and informative. Still, the level of quality and quantity of DVD extras that Criterion has offered the last few years does not augur well for the health of the company. The film is shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Not only did Shindô direct the film, but he wrote the screenplay, and while not a film that transcends its genre into cinematic greatness, it is arguably a genre great horror film, in its oblique Matissean narrative strokes and arcs, and a memorable score by Hikaru Hayashi that resembles much of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Planet Of The Apes, which also was released in 1968. What makes the score work is not so much the actual music (although it is highly evocative and well deployed), but the actual spareness of not its sound, but use, as literally 85-90% of the film has no scoring. But, its equal measure is met by the cinematography of Kiyomi Kuroda, whose visual whirls, dolly shots, pans and scans of faces, gauzy shots and seemingly double exposed shots of misty figures that tilt in the frame, as if some Oriental version of The Third Man.
Yet, unlike that masterful film from two decades earlier, the characters in Kuroneko are never really more than archetypes in this film; but it works because this is not a realistic film, but an allegory on evil, vengeance and choosing one’s enemies well, on both ends of the dilemma presented. The characters are merely instruments to affect and communicate an idea to the audience. However, despite their non-realistic overall personae, the characters often speak realistically, in terms of their emotive reactions, and this juxtaposition of the expected with the not so expected adds a psychological tension to the drama, in its schisms, that its actual narrative does not necessarily bear. And it’s in these moments that Kuroneko occasionally laps at greatness, even if it never fully lashes its tongue about the quality. But, sometimes a good lick is all one needs.