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.
PresentationPresented at an anamorphic ratio of 2.30:1 that is negligibly narrower than the original Tohoscope ratio of 2.35:1, Eureka have blessed Kuroneko with a glorious transfer. There aren’t really any faults to pick with this release, but if I had to mention anything I suppose it would be the reasonably frequent nicks, pops and scratches left on the print. Mind you, I’ve always felt that you’ve got to have a little bit of print damage on a film this old; otherwise it’d seem unnaturally clean! Everything else about the transfer is excellent; contrast is perfect, shadow detail is as good as Shindo’s fondness for spotlights will allow and detail is more than adequate (although some scenes are soft because of the way they were shot). What’s more I cannot recall a single Edge Enhancement or compression artefact throughout the entire film. Very impressive!
The only soundtrack available is the original Japanese DD1.0 Mono and just like the transfer there’s not much to fault, although you have to bear in mind that given the film’s age this isn’t exactly a quality DD1.0 track – for a start there’s audible background noise throughout the film, either in the form of faint hiss or a slight hum. Pops and scratches appear in the audio from time to time and the dialogue has a tendency to tear when voices are raised high enough, but the dynamics are pleasing and dialogue is very audible throughout. As with Onibaba the bass is a teeny bit soft but deep, handling those deep Japanese voices quite well. Optional English subtitles are present, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.