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The cat came back
A region 2 DVD review of KURONEKO / THE BLACK CAT by Slarek
 

It's easy to forget, as Shindo Kaneto's Kuroneko (The Black Cat, full title Yaba no naka no kuroneko, or The Black Cat From Inside the Bamboo Grove) opens on a scope-framed monochrome wide shot of samurai-era farmland – a familiar location from late 50s and early 60s Kurosawa and the early Zatoichi films – that the film was actually made in 1968, just one year before Sam Peckinpah turned the movie world upside-down with the balletic violence of The Wild Bunch. It's in part this production date misconception that makes the the brutal nature of the opening sequence so shocking.

Into this serene-looking scene stumble a large group of bedraggled samurai, who stop to drink thirstily and noisily from from the stream that flows through it. This is a time of civil war and these men have very probably escaped death in battle and have been searching for food and water for some time. Having refreshed themselves, they enter the farmhouse and find it occupied by two startled women, the wife and the mother of farmer Gintoki, who has been dragged off to war. The samurai exchange long, meaningful looks with the women – the feelings of both parties are made clear, as are the intentions of the warriors. After ransacking the house for food, the samurai proceed to gang rape the women and leave them both for dead. The warriors depart without a flicker of remorse, setting light to the farmhouse as they leave. Not a word has been spoken throughout the assault. As the flames die down, the surprisingly unburned bodies of the two women are revealed lying in the smoldering ruins of their home. A black cat emerges from a nearby forest and begins to lick their wounds.

Ah yes, black cats. Japanese folklore is peppered with stories of animal spirits, but the black cat is usually regarded as the most powerful and is almost always female in gender. (Although this may seem to reflect on Japan's notoriously patriarchal society, we should remember that in western folklore the black cat is famously linked to witches, also a female embodiment of dark sorcery.) As a symbol of spiritual malevolence it reappears throughout Japanese literature and cinema – it even has its own sub-genre in the kaibyo, or 'ghost cat' films of the 1950s. It remains a potent image, also cropping up in more modern genre works such as Shimizu Takashi's Ju-On: The Grudge as the spirit of a murdered wife (I was surprised to hear the venerable Bey Logan on the UK DVD commentary track of that film a little mystified by the cat's appearance and suggesting that it was borrowed from Poe).

Anyway, back to the plot. An unspecified time later, the two women have returned to earth as feline spirits, their house grandly reconstructed but visible only to their unwary victims. They have pledged to avenge their own deaths many times over by sucking the life blood from all samurai they encounter, lone figures found traveling through the dense local woodland who are lured to the house, offered the temptations of comfort, drink and sex, and then coldly slaughtered.

Although fine details of the plot become clear through conversation, Shindo's extraordinary visual sense and eye for dream-like imagery sets up the bulk of the story elements through a series of sometimes sleight-of-hand moments that are genuinely unnerving: the white figure that silently somersaults over the sleepy horse-mounted samurai; the briefly glimpsed fur-covered arm; the unexpected use of slow motion as the daughter-in-law skips over a puddle; the quick, cat tail-like swish of the mother's hair.

As the victims pile up, the seduction and destruction is edited down to an ultimately extraordinary compression of flying figures, jump cuts, and half-glimpsed facial close-ups that can't help but look like a template for later works by Hong Kong directors Tsui Hark and Sui-Tung Ching's 1987 A Chinese Ghost Story, a connection emphasised in the final confrontation between mother and son that foreshadows the wire work that has become a Chinese action cinema trope.

If the film was to prove inspirational to others, it also draws on the traditions of both Noh and Kabuki theatre, the vampire cinema of various nations, and a fair number of earlier Japanese film works. Choice examples incude Shindo's own celebrated Onibaba, the semi-abstract use of figures in darkness of Ichikawa Kon's 1963 An Actor's Revenge/Yukinojo henge, Masaki Koboyashi's four-story 1964 Kwaidan and Mizoguchi Kenji's 1953 masterpiece Ugetsu monogatari (Shindo served his film-making apprenticeship under Mizoguchi), both in atmosphere and thematic development.

The links to Onibaba are perhaps the most obvious: the civil war setting, the isolated house surrounded by vegetation and the malevolent mother/daughter-in-law team who prey on passing samurai, an agreed arrangement that only falters with when one of the women becomes emotionally involved with a potential victim. The films even share two of the same leading actors, and those slow-motion jumps over the puddle can't help but recall the similarly filmed leaps over the body pit in the earlier film. Where the characters in the two films differ is that what in Onibaba is prompted by base and ruthless survival instincts is in Kuroneko a matter of revenge, an attempt to right a terrible wrong that initially bonds us to the women's cause. But by damning all samurai for the crime and setting no limit on the number that must die, the arrival back from war of the absent Gintoki, now a samurai himself, presents the pair with moral and emotional complications beyond those of lust and envy that drove the women in Onibaba. As if this wasn't enough, Gintoki, who has made a reputation for himself as bold and fearless warrior, is charged with the job of hunting down and destroying these malevolent spirits. The tone shifts from the horrific to the romantic and even the erotic (another similarity to Onibaba), but the tale still has another sting, one that takes the concepts of love and sacrifice to the extreme. The extraordinary climax, a thoroughly creepy family confrontation, does nothing to comfort the viewer, and a final meow from an unseen cat is a subtle spine-chiller in the best horror tradition.

Make no mistake, though, this is no Onibaba appendage or patchwork melding of the work of others – despite its many influences, it stands proudly on its own strengths as a fine cinematic original. Kuroneko is a delicious creation, a wonderfully told tale of revenge, emotional conflict, family crisis, love, sex, sacrifice and the occult, gorgeously shot and edited and bristling with touches that are still fresh and exciting almost forty years on. It may sit with the tradition of Japanese cinematic ghost stories, of the kaibyo ghost cat films, and even Shindo's own previous work, but it showcases all of these elements at close to their best. A must for aficionados of Japanese cinema, it's also a chillingly effective, intelligently staged and sometimes supremely creepy tale of the supernatural that no truly discerning horror fan can afford to miss.

sound and vision

Framed at 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, in some respects the print here shows its age – there are a fair number of dust spots throughout, the occasional bit of contrast flickering and the image is a tad short of pin-sharp, but on the whole this is a very nice transfer. Much of the film is set at night and black levels are sometimes a little light, but for most of the time the contrast is very good, and the use of grey tones in some scenes set in the forest or the ghost house appears to be deliberate on Shindo's part – when characters enter such scenes wearing dark clothing the black levels are shown to be bang on.

The mono 1.0 soundtrack exhibits a few minor pops and crackles, but on the whole is clear and largely distortion free. Shindo uses silence, sound effects and regular composer Hikaru Hayashi's splendidly eerie music very effectively, and this is cleanly reproduced.

extra features

There is only one on-disk extra included, a Gallery consisting of 23 promotional stills and 3 posters. All are reproduced close to full screen and are of good quality.

As with all of Eureka's recent Masters of Cinema releases, there is one excellent extra feature not included on the disk, a 24 Page Booklet containing new and very detailed essay on the film by Doug Cummings, and part 3 of an interview with Shindo Kaneto conducted by Joan Mellen in 1972 (parts 1 and 2 are in the booklets supplied with the DVDs of Naked Island and Onibaba respectively). This is fine reading and provides plenty of background information on the film and its director, as well as a fascinating reading of the film itself.

summary

Inevitably this will be seen as a companion piece to the director's earlier Onibaba and there is some justification in that, given the similarities in plot and tone, but Kuroneko stands easily on its own very considerable merits as one of the most stylish and intelligently devised and realised examples of Japanese supernatural cinema. Eureka's disk generally does the film proud, and despite the scant extras comes highly recommended.

Kuroneko
The Black Cat

Japan 1968
95 mins
director
Shindô Kaneto
starring
Nakamura Kichiemon
Otowa Nobuko
Taichi Kiwako
Sato Kei

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 1.0 mono
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Stills gallery
Booklet
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
22 August 2005
review posted
22 August 2005

related reviews
Kuroneko [Blu-ray]
Onibaba [DVD]
Onibaba [Blu-ray]

See all of Slarek's reviews