Written and Directed by: Kaneto Shindō
Starring: Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, and Kiwako Taichi
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Will you wander forever as a vengeful ghost, mother?"
For the past decade or so, it’s felt like you can’t go anywhere without bumping into a vengeful Japanese ghost at the movies. I think half of the country’s population is actually composed of ghastly, wet-haired girls who return from the grave to wreak havoc. There’s a reason for all of this, and it’s actually rooted in the country’s folklore, which is full of so many spirits that they have categories for them. A popular trope is apparently the Onryo, which is the type of ghoul that crawled out of wells and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s hair and terrified everybody. Technically speaking, an Onyro is a mightily pissed off spirit that was wrongfully killed, and one of the earliest cinematic examples is found in the wonderfully haunting Kuroneko, a tale of revenge and twisted love.
Set in feudal Japan, it tells the story of a mother and a daughter-in-law who are raped and murdered by a gang of samurai, who proceed to burn their home to the ground to boot. They don’t stay dead for long, as they return in spectral form and appear to wandering samurai, who are coaxed into escorting them through a bamboo forest. Those who enter are never to return because the duo suck the blood of their samurai victims and actually become the scourge of a local governor, who eventually enlists a young conquering hero to take care of the problem. The catch? He’s actually the old woman’s son and the girl’s husband; having been plucked away to go to war, he was unable to protect them from their grisly fate.
That’s awkward, as you can imagine--but it’s also a supremely disturbing and delicious plot twist that finally sets Kuroneko in motion. Up until that point, it’s a fine, swift ghost story--the rape and murder happens within the opening minutes, and we’re then treated to a couple of episodes that establish the ghosts’ vengeful routine, but the undercurrent of tragedy isn’t present until Gintoki grasps what he’s stumbled into. And as deliriously frightening as the film is, it’s the haunting quality of his interactions with his dead mother and wife that lingers. Presenting a sort of sensual, spiritual necrophilia, Kuroneko is a sad, yet beautiful tale of a protagonist caught between the world of the living and the dead; his heart is obviously with the latter, but he’s at the service of the former as the battle for his soul rages.
The captivating story is complimented by Kaneto Shindō’s masterfully realized visual identity. Eerily photographed in black and white, the film oscillates mixes the measured, ominous calm of long takes and wide shots with frenzied sequences full of nightmarish imagery. Fleeting images also effectively highlight the ghosts’ ethereal quality; in one shot, they may appear to have the arms and hands of a cat before returning to normal with the next cut. The two also float around the frame in some of the film’s more spectacular effects shots. As a purely visual ghost story, Kuronoeko finds few equals in its gloomy intensity and phantasmal shooting style that whisks the audience into an otherworldly display of black cats and goblins.
Shindō eventually buries viewers in the sprits’ ghastly abode, a suffocating set piece bathed in the shadows of bamboo reeds. Most films would be content to drop you in the middle of the forest, and this one does thrive on the basic, primal isolation of the situation (it also helps that there’s really only one other major location, so the audience truly does feel cut off). However, Kuroneko is especially atmospheric in its choice of locales, as the remote hut is an extension of its wraithlike inhabitants. The film’s most memorable shot seems like a simple establishing shot of the hut; however, one can see that it’s subtly gliding among the bamboo grove, as if it exists outside of space and time. A brief but vital scene, it perfectly captures the understated, unnerving creepiness of the film.
Kuroneko’s most obvious antecedent would be Shindō's own Onibaba, with the similarities being obvious. Each involves a mother and a daughter murdering samurai in an eerie, lonely location, but the comparisons pretty much end there, as Kuroneko broods with a little bit more political and social indignation. Whereas the duo in Onibaba murder samurai out of incidental necessity, the mother and daughter here explicitly take revenge on the warriors, who are representative of the war-torn country. Most interesting is that the son has become part of the problem; though he was once an innocent peasant forced into war, he returns as a boastful soldier who quickly finds himself being judged by the souls of those he was unable to protect. Just as Onibaba presented a variation on spiritual and personal torment, so too does Kuroneko; after all, if you make a deal with the devil, you’re likely to end up in hell. And in this case, everyone involved has--Gintoki has embraced a life of bloodshed (as evidenced by his gleeful retelling of a battle that ended him hoisting his opponent’s severed head in triumph), while his mother and wife have become demonic agents of vengeance.
There’s a certain sublimity to the metaphysics presented here that sets Kuroneko apart, as it examines both the haunters and the haunted. As it turns out, each may be equally anguished. Visually striking, emotionally gripping, and an artful mixture of eroticism and violence, it’s one of the finest ghost tales I’ve seen. As an obvious precursor to modern Japanese supernatural thrillers, it’s a vital experience, and Criterion has given it proper treatment with a recent Blu-ray and DVD release. Along with Criterion’s usual fine presentation, you’ll be treated to a bevy of supplements, including a trailer, video interviews with Shind&訅 and critic Tadao Sato, and a 30 page illustrated booklet featuring an essay by Maitland McDonagh and an interview with Shind&訅 and scholar Joan Mellen. Kuroneko is akin to being dropped into a feverish delirium, as you’re drawn in by the powerful visuals, but you’re arrested by the hellish morbidity lying beneath. Essential!
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