Part of the value of any purchased disc can be calculated by how often you revisit it after that first viewing. There are many, many discs in my collection that I've only watched once, others that I've pulled off the shelf to replay specific scenes and those that I irregularly revisit in their entirety. I now have three full shelves of DVD's and Blu-rays from Eureka's glorious Masters of Cinema series, which are special enough to have their own specific location in my wall-to-wall library rather than be mixed in with the rest of the alphabetically stored discs. And of all of the Masters of Cinema DVDs in my collection, the most frequently re-watched is Shindô Kaneto's 1968 Kuroneko, or to give it its full title, Yabu no naku no kuroneko [The Black Cat Inside the Bamboo Grove].
I should perhaps admit that this viewing frequency is down in part to a Japanese friend who regularly pops round to watch movies on my home cinema system, and about once every three or four months she specifically requests that I put on Kuroneko, which remains one her favourite films from her home country. I'm always happy to oblige, being a very real fan of both the film itself and Shindô's cinema in general, which I arrived at, like many, through his haunting 1964 masterpiece Onibaba (which, interestingly enough, my friend is not so keen on), a film to which Kuroneko bears interesting similarities. It remains one of my favourite cinematic ghost stories and far and away one of the most neatly developed. But I've covered all this in my original DVD review, which you can read here. This review is thus not about the film itself but its HD upgrade, one of two Shindô films released on Blu-ray this week by Masters of Cinema (the other is his superb 1960 Naked Island). And so to business.
My hopes were high for this Blu-ray transfer, particularly given the potential for fine tuning offered by the previous DVD release, where blacks weren't quite there and the image was subject to intermittent flickering and a little soft in places, something that could vary from shot to shot in the early scenes. On the whole it was still a pleasing transfer given the film's age and the likely condition of the source material, but there was enough room for improvement to make the prospect of a Blu-ray upgrade an enticing one. Well there's good news and not so good news.
Before I get started I have to say that I miss the days when Masters of Cinema booklets used to include full details of the restoration and transfer, but it does seem very likely that the Kuroneko DVD and Blu-ray transfers of were both sourced from the same original – both display similar flickering in the opening post-title wide shot and the same brief burst of chemical damage at the start of chapter 6, and the shots that were a little soft on the DVD are similarly so on the Blu-ray. That said, some smaller specks of damage visible on the DVD (there weren't that many) have been cleaned up here.
What has changed from the DVD is the brightness and contrast. The black levels on the DVD transfer were a little washed out and generally rendered more as dark grey, which did rob the image of the deep blacks that a number of key sequences seemed to demand. Well the blacks here are as solid as you could ask for, which really does transform the night scenes in the bamboo grove when Shige entraps passing samurai, with the two parties isolated in pools of light in a scope framed sea of the darkest black. This is clearly how these scenes were meant to look. The down side is that this appears to have been achieved at the cost of picture detail that the lower contrast transfer on the DVD had partially preserved. The greyscale lacks the finesse of the best MoC monochrome transfers and shadow detail is sometimes pulled into the surrounding darkness, which on a couple of shots sucks in all but the brightest elements – on the first night-time wide of the Rajo Gate, the only thing I could clearly make out was the writing on the sign. Where the Blu-ray unquestionably trumps the DVD is the level of picture detail – it may be a little inconsistent in the early scenes, but at its best it considerably improves on its standard resolution predecessor.
Now I'd probably be making a case here for the transfer being at the mercy of the source material were it not for one thing: the 2011 US Blu-ray release from Criterion. The transfer on that disc was created on a Spirit 4K from 35mm print struck from the original camera negative and in spite of some remaining but cleaned-up damage, the results are generally excellent (try doing a search for "Criterion Kuroneko review" and check out the comments). On the whole the Criterion transfer is noticeable brighter than the one on the Masters of Cinema disc and you could argue that in the case of some scenes the levels on the MoC transfer are more in-keeping with the tone of the film – the subdued brightness of the three-shot of Yoge, Shige and their first Samurai victim as they sit and converse in the ghost house (see the second screen grab above) definitely feels more "right" on the MoC disc than the Criterion. But the tonal range on the Criterion disc is richer, the image more consistently crisp and vibrant and the black levels spot on, and achieved without seriously sacrificing shadow detail. The visible film grain is similar on both discs and does not feel in any way enhanced or artificial.
The difference in contrast and shadow detail between the
Masters of Cinema disc (top) and the Criterion (bottom)
The Linear PCM mono 2.0 soundtrack (we're back on the Masters of Cinema disc here) is rather good for a film of this vintage. There are the expected range restrictions on dialogue, but the rustling of wind in bamboo and Hiyashi Hikaru's extraordinary score are cleanly reproduced and with surprisingly little background hiss.
The only on-disc extra is a Theatrical Trailer (2:27), a fascinating piece with a striking soundtrack. It's also in remarkably good shape and, loathed though I am to say it, the contrast here is a little more detail-friendly than on the main feature.
Also included is a redesign of the very fine Booklet that accompanied the earlier DVD, which includes a detailed essay on the film by Doug Cummings, a 1972 interview with Shindô Kaneto conducted by Joan Mellen (the first part of which is in the booklet that accompanies the Blu-ray of Shindô's The Naked Island), credits for the film, stills and the usual instructions on viewing the film correctly.
Let's get something straight, everyone at Outsider loves Eureka's Masters of Cinema label to bits, and if I was dumped on a desert island with only food, wine, a box of good books and my MoC discs for company then I'd be in no serious hurry to be rescued. I'm also a huge fan of Shindô Kaneto's Kuroneko, and despite the transfer's imperfections would likely be cautiously recommending it anyway for its improved picture detail and its beefy black levels were it not for the existence of that Criterion disc. It's actually a damned shame Eureka were unable to licence that transfer (I'll bet it's not cheap) and its on-disc extra features (the star of which is an hour long interview with Shindô), as for UK viewers the Criterion disc is not just a pricey option but is locked to region A, and thus will require a multi-region Blu-ray player to view.
The Japanese convention of family name first has been used for all Japanese names in this review.