Judge Patrick Rogers is a fan of any film with naked cat women in them.
"What exactly was your oath of vengeance?"
"To drink the blood of samurai. To drink the blood of every last samurai in the world."
Standing by itself, Kuroneko would be a slightly flawed yet effective ghost story fueled by violent psychedelic imagery and outstanding performances on all sides. That the director released a very similar film only years earlier in Onibaba, a film that is his masterpiece by all accounts, only diminishes the impact of Kuroneko's wonderfully manic story ever so slightly. It is still a long forgotten work from a master.
Facts of the Case
Yone (Nobuko Otowa, The Naked Island) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi, Bullet Wound) are simple farmers in a time of strife. Years earlier Shige's husband, Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura, Double Suicide), was conscripted to fight in some nameless place, in some nameless war. Fearing Hachi dead, the two women tend to their crops as best they can until, one day, a group of roaming samurai rape and murder the two women. And yet fate intervenes in the form of a black cat. Concurrently, after killing an intimidating foe in battle in a less than heroic manner, Hachi is dubbed "Gintoki of the Grove" and finally allowed to return home after years of absence. Yet when he arrives he not only finds his house in ruins and his mother and wife missing, but a pair of cat-like ghosts have been ripping out the throats of samurai to drink their blood. Tasked with finding and killing these nightmarish ghouls, Hachi soon comes face to face with the truth about exactly has become of his mother and wife.
The most readily apparent thing about Kuroneko is that it is a film between worlds, both in its preoccupation with the natural and ethereal worlds but also in the director himself, Kaneto Shindo (Children of Hiroshima). Considering that Shindo was an assistant to Kenji Mizoguchi (Sansho The Baillif) early on in his career, a classical style and approach to film-making is readily apparent in a large majority of Shindo's oeuvre. There's the ever vigilant camera immaculately framing a dramatic narrative. There's the elegantly simplistic continuity editing and stage inspired performances by a band of dedicated actors. That Mizoguchi was one of the Holy Trinity (along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujir Ozu) to truly define the burgeoning Japanese film industry of the 1930s points to how strong of an influence Shindo had in his corner, one that would continually define his career.
And yet the middle and later parts of Shindo's career coincide with the Japanese New Wave film movement. This was a movement which came to be defined by a group of directors in the late 1950s who, having lived through the trauma of World War II and the oppressive postwar vacuum, used their films as a platform for social and political messages that were as vitriolic as they were incendiary. The classical style of the Golden Age era of film-making gave way to a more formalist and experimental approach to film defined by violence, sexuality and a vivid sense of rebellion against all institutions.
Kaneto Shindo occupies both of these worlds, and the hybridization of Kuroneko is what makes it so vividly exciting to watch.
The opening scenes of Kuroneko meld the exquisite beauty of the serene Japanese countryside with the starkness of rape and murder. While the scene implies a greater sense of violence than any Japanese Golden Age film would, it's still incredibly low key in the way that Shindo chooses to engage his audience's imagination. The camera soaks in every last ray of light and stalk of grass in a stoically locked position. The near absence of sound besides the ambient noise of the countryside speaks to the classical underpinnings of the film. Not soon after establishing this dichotomy between natural beauty and violent human nature, Shindo launches us into an almost dream-like daze of vengeance. The experimental nature of the film kicks into full force with playful camera work, stylized montage editing, and acrobatic wire work. Shindo juxtaposes the imagery of his forest against the villainy of humankind in extraordinary ways while also attempting to use it to expose our flaws. Buoyed by a simplistic yet robust story of lost love, vengeance, and spiritual suffering, Kuroneko begins to transcends its ilk.
And yet while this balance between classical and experimental styles is the film's greatest strength, it is also the film's greatest weakness. Shindo doesn't cultivate the kind of tension and atmosphere that he needs to sustain this premise for the long run because the tonal nature of the film is constantly clashing. Hikaru Hayashi's lackluster score doesn't help the matter. Watching his female leads soar through the air, cat-like, to exact vengeance is refreshing the first time…it's flat out corny the next five or six times we see it. The tonal shift in the second act to a melodramatic love story that crosses realms is also strangely ineffective in its brevity. One has to dig deep to find the beauty in this warped love story, and when you find it, you yearn for more. But luckily, Shindo saves his picture with an open and slightly nihilistic ending perfectly in line with the progressive Japanese film industry of the time.
It is undoubtedly an homage to Mizoguchi's earlier masterpiece Ugetsu because of the similar stories about vengeful spirits and the blurring of lines between reality and nightmare, but it's injected with such a level of eroticism, sexuality and violence that it would probably make Mizoguchi blush. It is also strikingly similar to Shindo's own film Onibaba which had come out four years earlier. Onibaba is Shindo's masterpiece because of its stark ferociousness, thematic complexity and visual elegance. Because of this, Kuroneko pales in comparison precisely for its unevenness. It is, however, still a masterfully crafted example of a prototypical "ghost story" and its influence on the Japanese horror genre is undeniable.
What does help to heighten Kuroneko is the Blu-ray that Criterion has put together for us. There's a reason why Criterion is considered the gold standard. The 2.35:1/1080p video transfer is absolutely gorgeous in its delicate balance between light and dark. Black levels are incredibly oily and robust, detail is highly defined and vibrant in a majority of scenes, and a strong film grain throughout lends to the transfer's brilliance. The monaural audio track is similarly amazing in the way that it balances ambient noise, sound effects, dialogue, and the score evenly through one channel. Crisp and defined, can't ask for anything more.
The special features that Criterion has amassed may be sparse but they're about as much as you could ask for. A video interview with Kaneto Shindo, that clocks in around an hour, helps to put his entire career into perspective while also laying the groundwork to understand the thematic underpinnings and themes prevalent in his work. Shindo is an incredibly articulate man while also remaining humble, and that's a hard thing to do. The second interview housed on this disc is with Japanese film critic Tadao Sato as he talks about the film's influences and themes while also offering perspective on its place within the Japanese film industry. Criterion rounds out the disc with a high definition trailer for the film and a booklet that features an incredibly expansive essay by Maitland McDonagh titled "The Mark of the Cat" and also the transcript for a 1972 interview with Shindo called "My Mind Was Always on the Commoners."
While Kuroneko may be a flawed film, it is still a refreshing work of art within its genre and its experimental and psychedelic tendencies are exciting to watch. This Blu-ray by Criterion does nothing but heighten the appreciation one should feel for Kaneto Shindo.
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