Director: Kaneto Shindô
Screenplay: Kaneto Shindô
Starring: Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi
Producer: Nichiei Shinsha
Running Time: 99 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
After finding international critical success with Onibaba in 1964 (which I reviewed earlier in the year), writer/director Kaneto Shindô hit a bit of a stumbling block with his next three films. Further exploring the themes of sex prevalent in Onibaba, these titles took more of a melodramatic approach to the topic and found little success critically or commercially. Perhaps due to this, Shindô moved back towards horror for his next film, Kuroneko (a.k.a. Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko, translated 'A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove').
As well as the themes and genre, Kuroneko has a few similar plot elements to Onibaba. Again we concentrate on two murderous women fending for themselves in the wilderness. This time however, the women are actually evil spirits. After being raped and murdered by a group of hungry samurai and their house burned down, mother and daughter-in-law Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and Shige (Kiwako Taichi) take revenge as cat demons (a black cat licks their charred bodies, triggering the curse). They pick up unsuspecting samurai at Rajo Gate, claiming they need an escort home and, once there, invite them in. After being seduced by the youngest of the two, the samurai are attacked and their blood drunk by biting their neck. When dawn comes, all that is left are the long burnt out remains of the house and the blood-drained corpse of the murdered samurai.
During the seduction of one of the samurai, we learn that the women have been waiting for their son/husband Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) for three years since he went to war. He soon does return after luckily defeating a notoriously mighty warrior in a bloody battle, leading him to receive the respect and support of the local governor. This lazy and dishonourable figure orders Hachi (who now takes the name of Yabu-No-Gintoki to sound more important) to find and stop the demons that have been haunting the area. He finds them quite quickly, but recognising them as visions of his family, he can't bring himself to kill them and rekindles his love for his wife, despite her no longer being human. This has tragic consequences for the both of them though as the film moves on.
From my fairly lengthy description the story sounds quite complicated, but it's actually quite simple and like Onibaba the film thrives largely on its atmosphere. The supernatural elements are much more prevalent here and highly effective. High contrast photography, keeping the spirits brightly lit in the all encompassing darkness of night, is incredibly effective. It's even more beautifully shot than it's predecessor, with some truly stunning imagery, particularly in the scenes in which the samurai are entrapped. During these, the mother performs a ritualistic dance in (what I imagine to be) a kabuki style. Stood between the pillars of her house with smoke swirling between her feet, these sequences are gorgeous and add to the darkly seductive atmosphere.
It's more than just pretty photography creating the uneasy mood though, the movements of the spirits, aided at times by wirework, are made to be unusually smooth and cat-like. Added to this is some effectively sparse sound design, mixing little more than the wind through the surrounding bamboo forrest and the occasional meow of a cat. Equally as strong is the music, employing a minimal percussive style for the first half as the various samurai are despatched. The second half introduces subtle strings and horns to add a human edge to the more melancholic side of the story while retaining the sinister sound.
Once again, the animalistic nature of man (and woman) are explored through the murderous and sexual appetites of the film's protagonists. Shindô also makes room for some social commentary through the exploits of Hachi and the governor. As with Onibaba it's the atmosphere and cinematic beauty that I really admired though.
I didn't love Kuroneko quite as much though it must be said. The first half, which focusses more on the horrific aspects, is incredible, but as the film moves on it feels a little stretched out and the denouement of the love story plays out a little clumsily. There is still a lot to love about the film though and I would thoroughly recommend it to any fans of Japanese cinema or horror in general.
Kuroneko is out on 24th June in the UK on Blu-Ray, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series (it's been out on DVD for a number of years through the label). As with most of their releases, the picture and sound quality is great, although the grainy photography does very occasionally struggle in the digital format.
There are no special features on the disc other than a trailer, but as usual you get a booklet which is as good as any behind the scenes featurette.