Kuroneko (Black Cat)
Directed by Kaneto Shindo
KANETO SHINDO’s Kuroneko (Black Cat, 1968) is a horror film whose single most horrifying act occurs in the opening minutes.
A hut surrounded by a grove of great wavering bamboo; a band of men stepping out of the treeline to approach the hut. The men enter, see two women huddled by a fire. Their eyes meet; the men step forward.
What happens next happens all too often in wartime. Long after the men have left and the hut has burned to the ground, the women’s bodies are left looking oddly unscorched (maybe slightly blackened by soot); a black cat noses through the smoking ruins, licks blood off the women’s throats.
It’s the usual trope in horror films: women wronged and wreaking revenge, in this case post life, in a supernatural manner. What Shindo brings to the party is a startling stylization inspired by theatrical staging and lighting, maybe taking a page or two out of Cocteau. A samurai approaches Rajomon Gate (a reference to Akira Kurosawa’s famous film); a brightly lit figure — a woman in distress — walks its upper balcony (without explanation she’s suddenly on the ground walking towards his horse). The samurai escorts the woman to her home across a bamboo grove (yet another reference to the Akira Kurosawa); as she steps across a puddle her passage is marked by an eerie slow-motion hop.
A pattern is quickly established: woman seeks help from passing samurai, brings him home to be served by her mother-in-law; when he makes a pass, she tears his throat out.
One thinks of Kenji Mizoguchi’s surpassingly beautiful Ugetsu Monogatari and its simple, at times surreal, supernatural effects. Shindo doesn’t achieve that high a style (despite being made 15 years later, with more nudity) but does manage his own share of unsettling details: the way, for example, he films the entrance of the mother (Nobuko Otowa), emerging from shadows as if from a black fog; the way the first samurai catches sight of mother-in-law’s hair curling like the tail of a cat; the way young Shige (Kiwako Taichi) kittenishly jumps from one side of the samurai to another as she feasts on his neck.
Shindo goes on to sketch political and social context. Shige’s husband Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) had been press-ganged into the army of warlord Raiko (Kei Sato) — hence why the marauding samurai had found his wife and mother-in-law unguarded. The same Raiko is shamed by his emperor (Hideo Kanze) into doing something about the killings, but is handicapped by the fact that his best men are off fighting battles elsewhere in Japan. As luck would have it, hapless Hachi himself arrives at Raiko’s court, having just killed a mighty enemy general; he’s sarcastically renamed Gintoki (a name he had given himself before engaging the general) and ordered to hunt the samurai killers — to in effect hunt his own wife and mother.
From vengeful ghost the film shifts focus on the poor and powerful — how Raiko stands above the chaos taking what he wants, consequences to the citizens be damned; when said citizens fight back, how he raises one of them up to put the rest down. Hachi eventually learns something of the true nature of the apparitions he’s seeking, at the same time said apparitions discuss what to do about him — on one hand he’s of the warrior class that had murdered them; on the other he’s beloved son and husband, come back successful (if too late) from a long absence.
Did I say Raiko “stands above?” Not quite; standing over even him is the Mikado, speaking in an effete voice and whining that the killings have kept him from sleeping. Where Raiko may resort to kidnapping to add to his army, the emperor only has to speak disapprovingly to compel him to action. Raiko may rant to his men about the emperor’s unmanly manners but he still obeys, warning his men not to repeat what he said (unsaid: otherwise heads will roll). As for the poor, what they desire is immaterial — they live or die or suffer according to the whims of their superiors. The contrast, to put it mildly, is instructive.
Surreal style and political subtext merge in what may be the film’s most quietly disturbing image: the first warrior, laughing in the company of his two former victims, brags about how samurai will rise up one day to take what is rightfully theirs; behind him the walls disappear and reveal the surrounding bamboo grove.
What do all the bamboo mean? That military might is all-encompassing and irresistible and the samurai’s vision (as instilled in him by Raiko) will come to pass? That the common man surrounds the soldier, passing bitter silent judgment? That nature — or the world, or The Way Things Are — stands above all, unsympathetic and implacable? One wonders; one feels uneasiness, and waits.