Tales of vengeful murder victims whose spirits take on the shape of animals in order to exact revenge upon those who did them wrong, form the origin of legends the world over. However few can be as bewitching, or darkly romantic, as the Japanese folktale The Cat’s Return, which forms the basis for the classic horror film Kuroneko (Yabu no nara no kuroneko or The Black Cat Inside the Bamboo Grove, 1968) by writer / director Kaneto Shindô. As a result the revered filmmaker’s interpretation of the ancient story, newly released as part of Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series, disturbs as much mentally as it does visually.
Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi) are left to tend their farm after their son and husband Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) goes off to war. Now alone the women are one day attacked and murdered by a band of marauding soldiers. However after death Yone and Shige make a pact with the demons of the underworld, returning to earth in the form of vampiric cats to exact revenge upon unsuspecting Samurai warriors who pass by the bamboo grove in which they live. Unknown to the women Gintoki has returned from the war a hero and is sent by his superior officer to investigate the strange murders terrifying the local area.
Kuroneko is a masterpiece of inference and suggestion. Brought to life against a setting of angular bamboo forests, houses partitioned with gauze like curtains which flutter in the breezes that constantly moan about their rooms, and pillared palaces topped with jutting eaves and sloping tiled roofs, the film is memorable for its use of atmosphere and tension rather than blatant viscerals. If and when the film succumbs to visual horror, it does so with only fleeting images depicting some vividly ripped throats – the preferred way for the spirits, once they have reverted to their cat like forms, to despatch their victims. Even these scenes when they happen are shown with such fleeting brevity, that there is very little which could cause disquiet in all but the most faint hearted viewer. In a career which spanned almost seventy years and over one hundred and sixty films Shindô, who died in 2012 at the age of one hundred, built a reputation as one of cinema’s most revered practitioners based on a deep-seated belief of using beauty and purity to evoke emotion.
Not as blatant as Shindô’s other acclaimed excursion into supernatural horror Onibaba (1964), Kuroneko is equally arresting due to its pacing and the magical, almost theatrical, spareness of its sets. The seemingly endless bamboo grove through which Shige requests the Samurai to escort her to her house, is both beautiful and alarming as a relentless gale appears to blow around it. However it’s Yone who rules the roost at home, and the image of her draped in a kimono as she passes spectre-like amongst the rooms at the dead of night will haunt the viewer’s consciousness long after the film ends.
Not necessarily the easiest film to watch due to a sometimes ponderous approach, it is also this that gives the viewer time to appreciate Kuroneko‘s depth of characterisation, which is one of its most appealing aspects. Essentially a story of three characters, around whose lives the supporting cast flit briefly in and out, the film belongs to Otowa and Taichi as the mother and daughter-in-law, and Nakamura as the son and husband at the centre of a ‘love triangle’. The intensity of the central performances is as mesmerising and frightening as any depiction of full-on horror, and infinitely more disturbing due to their air of stark realism.
From the opening scene where Yone and daughter-in-law Shige are brutally murdered, the film evokes sympathy and understanding at the lengths the women are forced to go to in order to avenge the wrong done to them, and the turmoil they experience when faced with their personal acts of climatic self-sacrifice as a result of their love for Gintoki. Indeed considering what they have been subjected to, their revenge upon the army as a whole, symbolised in their systematic killing of various Samurais (the most noble and revered of Japanese warriors), seems like poetic justice. The almost ritualistic way in which they ensnare the weary soldiers, first luring them with tea and sympathy, only to tease them with sexual seduction culminating in an orgiastic onslaught of rapid, erotic violence is as shocking to the viewer in its suddenness, as it is for the unsuspecting men.
Kuroneko is a film as bewitching as it is unsettling, which will entrance the viewer in the same way as the spirits of Yone and Shige do their hapless victims.
Kuroneko is released on a special Blu-ray edition on June 24, 2013. A host of extras include optional English subtitles, optional theatrical trailer and a booklet with an essay by Doug Cummings, reprint of a vintage interview with Shindô and rare archival imagery.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.