I've duplicated the following film review from my review of the 2005 Masters of Cinema UK R2 DVD
Cats may not have managed to usurp the dog as Man’s Best Friend just yet, but few animals have had such an impact on superstition and folklore across the world than our furry feline chums. Now, Japan loves cats as much as the next nation – in fact they have the fourth largest cat population in the world - but while today they mostly associate the animals with good fortune, (like the Manekineko - Beckoning Cat - which is an extremely popular lucky charm), they haven't always loved their furry feline pets. In fact when cats were first introduced into the country the Japanese thought they were cursed animals, resulting in many scary stories about Bakeneko (Ghost Cats or Vampire Cats) that kept children and adults awake at night.
According to legend, not only does a black spot on a cat contain the soul of a dead person, but also as a cat ages its tail splits and it grows to the size of a human to become a special type of Bakeneko known as a Nekomata. This ghostly cat is famous for taking the appearance of a human female and sometimes seeking vengeance for the murders of their masters, so just remember that if you should ever need to bump someone off in Japan, make sure they don’t own any pets!
In 1964 the Japanese writer/director Kaneto Shindo scored a big hit at home and abroad with the film: Onibaba, which reworked an old Buddhist parable to tell the story of two working-class women who made a living during impoverished times by finishing off injured soldiers then pawning their armour for food. He followed this success with three erotic dramas that didn’t exactly set the box office alight, so Shindo decided a return to the horror genre was in order. This time around he decided to plunder from various stories about ghostly cats and animal apparitions seeking vengeance to create his second horror masterpiece of the 60’s: Kuroneko (Black Cat).
Set during the Sengoku Jidai (Warring Era: a period of intense civil conflict when most men across the land were forced to join Samurai battalions and fight in local skirmishes), Kuroneko starts off with the brutal rape and murder of Yone and her daughter-in-law Shige at the hands of a rogue Samurai squadron. The two women are left to burn in their hut as the soldiers return back to battle, but when their pet cat arrives and starts licking the blood off the charred bodies, their spirits are given the chance to be reborn as vampiric demons that can exact revenge by feeding on the blood of Samurai, and soon their bloody retribution has left a trail of bodies that even the Mikado (Emperor) can't ignore.
His answer is to order the leader of the Samurai: Minamoto no Raiko to deal with the problem by any means necessary. Raiko in turn passes the burden on to one of his newly promoted soldiers who is fresh from successfully killing a very powerful enemy soldier in the Northern territories of Japan. The newcomer’s name is Gintoki, he’s young strong and eager to uphold Raiko’s honour by destroying the apparitions. However, Gintoki also happens to be Yone’s son and Shige’s husband, who had to leave his family behind three years prior when he was forcibly drafted into the local general’s army. When he travels to Rajomon gate and instantly recognizes the faces of the murderous apparitions, Gintoki’s duty to Raiko and loyalty to his cherished loved ones is brought into direct conflict. The same conflict applies to Yone and Shige, who have both made a blood oath to demon gods that they would destroy every samurai that crosses their path.
Comparisons to Shindo’s previous film, Onibaba are somewhat unavoidable when talking about Kuroneko. Both films share so many themes and motifs that one is pretty much a glorified sequel to the other. For a start they’re both set during the same time in Japanese history and revolve around a mother/daughter in law partnership who have lost all trace of humanity to exist as beasts – albeit spiritually in Onibaba’s case, whilst literally here in Kuroneko. Most importantly though, these two films have an awful lot to say about the class divides of Japan and the nature of war in general, with Shindo unsurprisingly painting a damning portrait of greed, corruption and hypocrisy within the Samurai system and the royal court.
When we’re first introduced to Minamoto no Raiko he’s seen on his knees literally sweating buckets waiting for the Mikado’s comments, but after this meeting his courage suddenly comes back, allowing him to not only complain but also mock the Mikado’s orders as the act of the frightened, bloated upper classes - yet Raiko himself goes on to fob the job off onto his working class subordinate Gintoki. Later on when Gintoki informs Raiko that the ghosts are committing the murders as an act of vengeance against Samurai who have wronged them, his response is one of utter incredulity; Raiko’s so caught up in his own arrogance that he can’t possibly fathom that anyone would bear ill-feeling towards the Samurai. This makes the early words of another Samurai that the land is now “ours for the taking” and that “eventually even the emperor will have to yield to our general” all the more ominous. It’s clear that the Samurai are no better than the current nobility; they’re just members of lower classes who have seized an opportunity to gain power through the bloodshed of years of civil war.
Yet while the themes and general tone remains very consistent with Onibaba, Shindo’s approach to the material is noticeably different. Kuroneko is heavily steeped in the fantastical and as such it is a much straighter horror than its moody predecessor. In fact, the grittiest part of the film is the opening sequence when the Samurai squadron trespass on Yone and Shige’s land and brutallyl rape & pillage them. Shot totally in long silent takes and focusing not on the acts themselves, but the crazed animalistic expressions of the troops as they go about the act, this is a hard hitting reminder of how war can turn anyone into evil predators. It was important that Shindo achieved the right dramatic impact in these opening scenes in order to appropriately convey the women’s motivation for the extreme acts they later undertake as bestial spirits.
After their death the tone shifts to the ethereal and Shindo adopts a very theatrical way of lighting, using spotlights and deep black backgrounds to the same excellent effect as he did in Onibaba, only this time he expands on this simple theatrical element to include whole Noh dance sequences and Kabuki flourishes. When the women start preying on the samurai victims they first go through the formal rituals polite society dictated at the time: A brief exchange of sake with sneaky intercuts of the women’s true forms that gives a very eerie sense of the horror that awaits their victims, as if the samurai sense the their true forms in the corner of their eyes for just a second but never directly enough to suspect. When the kill finally happens it is again not shown explicitly, but instead cut to the rhythm of Yone’s Noh dance sequences, which results in a very effective sense of horror when the visceral murder takes place. The Noh sequences are so graceful and deliberately paced that when Shige roars and sinks her teeth into her victim, you literally jump out of your skin.
When Gintoki comes to defeat the apparitions the tone switches again as he’s confronted with the fact that these monsters are his own family; here the dramatics become much more tragic as each individual is faced with the beloved family they know they have lost for good. This is very different to the somewhat cold characters in Onibaba, the protagonists here are monsters born out of their tragic fate rather than being warped by the prolonged harshness of society around them, which makes the lead characters much easier to relate to and ensures that Kuroneko is far more involving emotionally as a drama. So while Kuroneko may not have quite as hard an impact as Onibaba, it is a much stronger film in terms of straight up horror and tragic drama. For me both films are equally worthy of their classic status and should make an excellent double bill for any budding Asian horror fan.
PresentationWell this is a real turn up for the books! Masters of Cinema and Criterion have long been bedfellows of sorts given the type of films they opt to distribute. There have been many overlapping releases on the BD format, and many contrasting transfers have ensued, but we've never had quite the contrast between releases that we do with Kuroneko. In short this UK release from the good folks at MoC looks significantly darker than any other home video release before it. Judging from screenshots I have viewed online, it's clear that this release is very murky in comparison to the other big existing Western Blu-ray release of the film (the Criterion), and that begs the question: Which one represents Shindo's "true" vision?
I doubt there are many people out there who can truly answer that, the only thing I can state is that Criterion have a long history of going to town on their transfers and boosting the contrast or brightness when they feel the need, while Masters of Cinema tend to have a more hands-off approach - for better or for worse. I suspect whichever transfer you side with will depend on what you expect from films like Kuroneko: Do you want the image to be bright and illuminated so you can soak up as much of the mise-en-scène as possible, or do you want the film to be more gloomy and moody as befitting a supernatural horror with strong Kabuki leanings?
As a viewer, I'm leaning more towards the latter, but I'm also well aware that no other prior release has looked THIS gloomy, heck even the 1080p trailer on the disc appears significantly brighter. The Masters of Cinema transfer looks very naturalistic, and I feel it should be commended for doing so, but not everyone is going to love it! So with that naturalistic bent in mind, I have to say that the film looks dark with only moderate levels of shadow detail in the darker scenes and more expressive shadows in the few brightly-lit daytime sequences, while a thick veil of grain extracts more fine detail from the image. This is a true 1080p presentation with the grain nicely defined, but the look of the film is pretty soft so don't expect to see any crevices in the faces of the performers.
The print is in good condition with only moderate levels of nicks & pops flickering up on the screen, and there are absolutely zero signs of any noise reduction in play. Contrast levels are also pleasingly organic, whites are never too "hot" and black levels are never too deep (as I would expect from film of this age & budget), while the AVC compression averages out to a bitrate of 35Mbps. The disc is beautifully authored with nary a compression artefact in sight.
The Japanese LPCM 1.0 Mono soundtrack has been cleaned up nicely and is mostly free of any audible hiss or crackle. There is a little distortion and tearing in the higher register, but that's just about the only weak point of this rich and expressive presentation. Dialogue is clear and audible throughout, and its translated by optional English subtitles that are free of spelling or grammatical errors.
ExtrasOn the disc itself is a lone Theatrical Trailer presented in 1080p with Japanese DD1.0 Mono audio and optional English subtitles, so the bulk of the "extra content" in this release comes in the usual form of a thick wad of paper tucked inside the case. This 31-page booklet is mostly replicated from MoC's 2005 DVD release, but rather than lazily reproduce that booklet as it was they've chosen to include new stills from the film and apply some very minor editing to featured articles (little things like providing the original Japanese titles of any film referenced).
The articles are as follows: A lengthy essay by film critic Doug Cummings that thoroughly dissects Shindo's masterpiece and its themes, and a re-print of an interview with Kaneto Shindo conducted by Joan Mellen in 1972 that starts off discussing the sexual themes of the director's oeuvre before settling into a more specific discussion on the themes present in Kuroneko. Both are illuminating and well worth your time, and if you already caught them the first time around, read them again anyway. MoC went to the effort to reprint 'em after all!