Published on October 8th, 2020 | by Blake Morrow0
Spooky TFS – Kuroneko
Another week, another great Halloween horror movie recommendation from our man Blake. Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko is a beautiful and atmospheric J-horror prototype with emotional complexity.
At the edge of a bamboo grove rests a small farm overlooking an empty field. Inside of the hut a woman, Yone, and her daughter-in-law, Shige, quietly eat from their bowls of rice. It’s a peaceful setting soon overrun by a disheveled band of roving samurai. They come out of the brush and throw themselves to the ground, drinking greedily from the stream of water outside. Then they move towards the hut, starving for more. Set in feudal Japan during a time of war, Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (Black Cat) is a passionate, eerily beautiful film. It is one of the earliest prototypes of what would define J-horror, a genre often focused on ghosts, haunted houses, and mostly psychological thrills. Established as a simple rape-revenge story, the film eventually reveals a surprising amount of emotional complexity based on the conflict between our two strongest feelings: love and hate.
The opening scene is a waking nightmare, made all the more horrifying by the realistic rape and murder of Yone and Shige. The samurai retreat back to the bamboo grove after setting the hut alight with the corpses inside. However, as the flames die down the women’s bodies are strangely well-preserved. A meow sounds off-screen as Yone and Shige’s black cat stalks into the smoldering ruins. It lowers its head and begins licking the blood from the open wounds on their necks. Mysterious forces are at work in Kuroneko as the film immediately transitions to a dream-like state. We follow the two ghost women as they seek the blood of the samurai that so cruelly slaughtered them. Playful winks hint at their feline nature. The mother’s hair flicks like a tail, they lap up water with their tongues, and wire-work emphasizes their cat-like agility. Both of them use their feminine beauty as a weapon to lure hapless warriors back to the grove. As the public catches on to a malevolent force at work, the samurai leader conscripts a new war hero to find and slay the beasts.
The presentation of Kuroneko is other-worldly. The black-and-white cinematography is some of the best ever put to film. The colours perfectly embody a ghost story with a black cat, with flawless lighting helping to create a universe of simmering evil. Shindo uses a Kabuki theatre style throughout to influence his directorial decisions. All of the actors give exaggerated and expressive performances. Ritualistic dancing is tossed in the mix and the use of spotlights evokes the feeling of watching a stage play. Creative visual effects make for haunting images that heighten the supernatural atmosphere. The soundtrack is exceptional in creating a spooky, malevolent mood. High-pitched scratches pierce the somber music, creating slices of tension with every screech. All of these elements work together to create a chilling aura for this poetic fable.
In a filmography grounded in reality, Kaneto Shindo’s two horror films, Kuroneko and the wider-known Onibaba, at first seem to be extreme outliers. Obviously, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Like most of his films, Shindo’s main concern in these horrors lies with those in the lower classes of society. It’s similar in a way to the humanistic approach of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri which exposes the hypocrisy of the samurai and their cruelty hidden under the guise of honor. Shindo covers the same themes but uses horror elements to elevate his ideas. Kuroneko depicts the samurai as cutthroats and rapists, monsters roaming the countryside and leaving nothing but ash in their wake. The first man lured back to the grove articulates this perfectly, boasting that, “Fighting allows us to eat our fill and have whatever we desire. We samurai can take what we want!” Little thought is given to those killed in the crossfire. Yone and Shige coming back from the dead to exact their vengeance acts as a karmic manifestation of everyone’s ill will towards the samurai.
All of that being said, this homicidal pursuit of justice is brilliantly juxtaposed with achingly tender moments of intimacy. What begins as a simple mission for the lone samurai to kill the two ghosts is soon complicated as feelings develop between them. The warrior and the women care deeply for each other, but both sides are bound by duty to exterminate the other. For all of its supernatural intricacies, the drama of Kuroneko boils down to this emotional back and forth between love and hate. Violence begets violence in a never-ending cycle of destruction, making for a haunting meditation on the all-consuming consequences of war.