Director Kaneto Shindo’s 1968 film Kuroneko isn’t interested in creating some mystery, or in planting red herrings to set the viewer up for a twist ending. Kuroneko establishes its true premise as efficiently as it can and then dives into the situation it has created, concentrating instead on the toll its story takes on its characters.
The film starts with a band of hungry, war-torn samurai coming across an isolated farm. They loot the place for food and water before turning their violent attentions on Yone (Nobuko Otawa) and Shige (Kiwako Taichi), the two women who live there. They rape and kill the women, set the hut on fire, and disappear back into the forest from which they first emerged. Yet, after the fires have died down, we see Yone and Shige’s bodies laying, unburned, amidst the wreckage.
Flash forward a few years, and these same samurai enjoy lives of prosperity and comfort. However, a lady in white begins appearing at the Rashomon Gate, which marks the boundary between the city and the wilderness. She asks lone samurai to guide her safely home, but by morning these samurai are found dead with their throats torn out by some animal or demon. The remaining samurai are left to wonder what type of monster preys on elite warriors like themselves, but we viewers have a front-row seat to the attacks and know, of course, that revenge is being dealt to the samurai by the two women they killed.
If Kuroneko satisfied itself with this, it would still stand as an extremely well-shot supernatural horror film, the only question being if the vengeful spirits would have their revenge in the end. It would, however, be much shallower than the film Kuroneko actually is. Kuroneko‘s conflict comes when Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura), Yone’s son and Shige’s husband, gains honor for himself by taking the head of an enemy warlord. Now a samurai named Gintoki of the Grove, he is tasked with destroying the monsters who terrorize the samurai ranks.
The intervening years, and the women’s formal non-peasant appearnace, place some doubt in Hachi’s mind when he encounters Yone and Shige. He feels fairly certain that they are his wife and mother, or at least spirits in the form of his wife and mother. For Yone and Shige’s part, they hide their conflict as best they can, but ultimately all three settle into a brief stalemate in which Hachi returns to the house every night to be with his bride. Yone, mindful of their vow to drink the blood of every living samurai, disapproves of this.
It’s from that standpoint that Kuroneko goes into unexpected places. Yone and Shige are genuinely conflicted over Hachi’s return, because he represents not only the happiness of life, but also because he is a samurai. They react quite differently, though. After some initial confusion, Shige finds what joy she can with Hachi, while Yone is much less enthusiastic. They can never tell Hachi who or what they truly are, though, due to the vow they have sworn to the god of evil
Courtesy of Kiyomi Kuroda’s cinematography, Kuroneko is beautifully shot in black-and-white, with a very formalized style. Lone spotlights pierce the darkness of Yone and Shige’s haunted home to illuminate figures suffering on the floor. Shige, and then Yone, as the white lady, practically glows in the darkness of the Rashomon gate. Lush bambooo contrasts with the symmetry of the house. Every shot in Kuroneko is obviously very well planned.
In its content, though, it’s quite daring in its portrayal of the samurai as entitled and reckless, as men at the top of the social structure who are essentially above the law. In one telling scene, Hachi’s superior tells him to quit worrying about the peasants, for they are barely even people. Before falling prey, Yone and Shige’s first victim crows about the ability of samurai to do what they want and take what they want. In the same way that films like Harakiri sought to challenge the romantic aura around the samurai, Kuroneko refuses to grant any nobility to the samurai at all, portraying them as venal and corrupt.
Unsurprisingly, the bonus features help us understand Kuroneko a little better. Film critic Maitland McDonagah’s essay in the accompanying booklet reveals that a Japanese audience would have been familiar with the folkloric tradition of cat spirits known as bakeneko. They would have recognized Yone and Shige not just as spiritual creatures, but also possibly as dangerous beasts who might have devoured the bodies of the very people whose forms they’ve taken. So when we see a flash of hair twitching like a cat’s tail, or a hair-covered claw emerging from a kimono, it’s not simply that Yone and Shige exist between worlds. They may in fact be full-fledged monsters.
Just as Kuroneko hides nothing in establishing its story and the fact that its story is a tragedy, it’s not giving away much to say that hardly anyone is better off at the film’s end. It’s a tragedy of a very strange kind, but a tragedy, nonetheless.