Kuroneko (Black Cat) should be revered in the same way that the early Universal monster pictures are. Written and directed by Kaneto Shindo, it’s a far better film than any of those but it was also made much later. It’s a gothic melodrama of the highest order that’s cut from the same cloth. For years, it’s languished as a hard-to-find bootleg but now it’s finally gotten the royal treatment from Criterion. It’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of gothic horror.
The story is relatively simple. Gintoki, played to perfection by Kichiemon Nakamura, has been conscripted into the military of a local warlord, leaving his wife and mother alone to tend their farm. A gang of wandering “samurai” come upon the house and, for no reason except for their own savage desires, attack the two women. They steal their food, rape them, and burn the house to the ground. The only survivor is the family’s small black cat.
This brutality sets the stage for the ghosts of the two women to seek vengeance, and they do so with great gusto. Some of the samurai they dispatch were clearly among the men who did them in, but many were not. The ghostly pair is the feudal Japanese equivalent of Jason Voorhees, drinking the blood of all samurai who cross their paths.
The young conscript, Gintoki, eventually returns from success on the battlefield and is made samurai and retainer of the local warlord. He goes home to find the remains of his house but no other news about the whereabouts of his mother and wife. Then he’s given orders to find and destroy the ghosts responsible for the demise of so many samurai and thereby encounters his family once again.
The core of the film is the dilemma shared by Gintoki and his wife and mother. Each has vowed to destroy the other and yet they want to be together again. This makes for a positively Shakespearean tragedy, and one with many shades of meaning in a society that’s well known for its rigid class structure and its respect for those who stay in line and do as they are told. The pacing is slow and deliberate, but there’s a lot here to love.
The film was shot in black and white by Kiyomi Kuroda, but the visuals are hardly boring. There is a theatrical quality to the ghosts and their world that is rarely seen in films, even today. The lighting is impeccable and serves to illustrate the differences between the world of the living and the world of the dead. These are truly sumptuous visuals and they really help propel the story in a lucid way. The only downside is the abundant day-for-night photography present here, but there probably wasn’t any other way to shoot large, outdoor scenes at the time.
The music, though sparsely used, is also pitch perfect for the story. Hiraku Hayashi’s score is so compelling that I wish there were more of it to hear. He bridges the gap between Japanese classical and orchestral score in such a way that you never notice the shifts between the two.
If you like ghost stories, whether they be the stringy-haired variety of modern Japan or the classics from Universal and Hammer, you owe it to yourself to check out Kuroneko. Very highly recommended.