Director: Kaneto Shindô
Stars: Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi
For the better part of the last century, cats have had a bad run of things when it comes to horror cinema. Whether you look back to the Val Lewton produced Cat People of 1942 or the various iterations of Poe’s The Black Cat that have crossed both borders and decades, our feline friends have been an evocative shortcut to witchcraft, devilry and murder. Of course, their symbolism in this regard predates the silver screen – stories potent with feline mistrust have been around far longer than ol’ Edgar Allan, even – but it’s curious how filmmakers return to the domestic house cat as a representation of the damned. As a confirmed cat lover, I feel they’re getting a raw deal here, but I’ll always turn up for more of the same.
Japanese horror cinema may have had a boom around the turn of the millennium with titles like Ring and Audition, but this wasn’t the first time the country’s horror cinema had thrived. Go back to the 1960s and you’ll find directors like Masaki Kobayashi and Kaneto Shindô experimenting with the genre to see how it could help them manifest strange and startling new images. Kobayashi’s Kwaidan is a colourful, theatrical portmanteau production, showcasing a variety of traditional stories. Shindô, meanwhile, directed two of Japan’s defining horror movies; 1964’s terrific Onibaba – which turned an overgrown grass field into a seething textural mass – and 1968’s feline-themed Kuroneko. Both deserve your strict attention, but it’s the latter I feel moved to reminisce on today.
Otherwise known as The Black Cat Inside the Bamboo Grove, the film is set in the jidai-geki period. Both wandering samurai and hoards of bandits roam the countryside causing havoc. The startling opening showcases the latter. A mother, Yone (Nobuko Otowa), and her daughter-in-law, Oshige (Kiwako Taichi) are set upon by a band of outlaws. Their foodstocks are raided, and the women are raped and left for dead as the bandits burn their rural home to the ground. The slow-pluming smoke erupting from their bashed-in doorway is the first of Shindô’s many vivid and eerie images here. In the ashes, the bodies of the two women are visited by a black cat; a supernatural entity who takes their form in order to wreak spectral vengeance on any and all men who stray into the bamboo grove from then on.
Lone samurai are met by the younger woman, who coaxes them back to the seemingly untouched home. Seeking shelter and more besides, these men are set upon, their necks torn into by the spirits’ hungry teeth to the sound of a howling feline’s call.
The missing person in this family equation, as you might well have spotted, is Yone’s son and Oshige’s husband Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), who left the family home undefended as he pursued a reputation as a fearless samurai himself. Having attained said reputation, he returns, and is sent to defeat the murderous spirits haunting the bamboo grove, unaware that he is to vanquish the possessed forms of his former wife and mother-in-law.
It’s a traditional Japanese folktale, one that bares some resemblance to Shindô’s prior success Onibaba four years earlier. Both feature a motif of seemingly cursed black holes – perhaps vaginal. Onibaba‘s is a literal hole in the ground, Kuroneko‘s a sinister puddle. Both stories feature the same dynamic between the women. In Onibaba it is again a mother-in-law and daughter who feature prominently, and again they lure men to their deaths in a natural environment of vertiginous shoots that slice up the screen. But where Onibaba leans more heavily on eroticism and a sense of dry heat, Kuroneko is a far more clandestine and shadowy affair. Both films are rendered remarkably. Onibaba leans on texture, while Kuroneko creates magic through oppressive and often beautiful darkness.
Cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda is the film’s undeniable MVP. He forces Kuroneko into a gloaming of deep blacks from which shards of light reveal partial forms. Gintoki’s horse is darkly coloured but for a white stripe along it’s nose (a little like Bojack Horseman – not to ruin the mood!). At times this white marking is the only sign of the horse, like a chalk mark scratched onto the image, sharp and impressionistic. The bamboo grove itself obscures the image with strips of black, rendering the arena of conflict prison-like and unpredictable. Shadows don’t just make up the negative space, but the foreground, too.
Shindô uses wirework to make the movements of the women seem swift and unnatural, and plays tricks on both his characters and his audience by changing their locations in the blink of a cut. Here the editor (Hisao Enoki) is key to enhancing the sense of unease. The viewer’s not sure where to look. Kuroneko isn’t about cheap jump scares like a lot of modern horror pictures (from, seemingly, any country). It takes the opposite approach, you might say. Instead of something rushing out at you, something suddenly isn’t there. Discombobulating and effective. Add roils of mist and you have one of the most atmospheric horror films of a generation.
Of course the dramatic meat of the film is Gintoki’s dilemma. He is torn because the foe he has to vanquish so resembles those dear to him. He is confronted with the obligation to obliterate memory and sentiment; his humanity if you will. There’s a touch of romanticism here that also sets it apart from the baser urges that drove Onibaba (although there’s sexiness here, too). Gintoki realises that these women are not those he once loved, but grapples with overcoming those emotions. It’s rueful and melancholic. Comparable to Tarkovski’s 1972 sci-fi Solaris even. A family reunion underpinned with supernatural tension – will the cat spirits callously claim him as another of their victims? And might he consent to this fate so as to relive their touch one last time?
There’s also a gender war being discussed here; a fraught criticism of the lines along which feudal Japan was divided and the disproportionate suffering for women. The vengeance of these cat spirits is a rebuke to this suffering.
Another small point but one I’d like to make; I also relish the campy performance given by Hideo Kanze as Mikado, the emperor giving Gintoki his instructions, all the while sporting a moustache well worth twirling. Though underpinned by the seriousness of what he demands of the young samurai, his delivery carries also the film’s sole comedic flourish. Particularly male bravado and boastfulness is commented on here, too, when Mikado exaggerates Gintoki’s accomplishments, making him complicit in a lie, and perhaps dooming him.
Kuroneko is generally regarded as the lesser of the two horror pictures here discussed from Shindô and I am inclined to agree with that, but I do feel that the comparison and question itself does Kuroneko a disservice. This is masterful filmmaking, eerie and tragic and also, in its framing and production, starkly beautiful, even down to the stark contrast of the costuming – all dark fabrics emblazoned with bright white floral patterns. Gintoki’s dilemma comes down to a choice between professional prosperity and the personal (ironically on-point with the lockdown developments this week!). And yet still cats come out of this with their reputations further tarnished.
Or, perhaps, enhanced, depending on your point of view…