Made 4 years after Onibaba, his epic tragic tale of lust and murder, Japanese director Kaneto Shindo returned to many of the themes he previously explored in the supernatural morality tale Kuroneko.
Also known as A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove, the story – like Onibaba – is an adaptation of an ancient folktale set during a time of civil war in Japan. In the stark and brutal silent opening a band of samurai chance upon a house hidden in a bamboo grove and decide that the two women inside might provide some amusement for them.
Raping and beating the mother and her daughter-in-law (played by Nobuko Otowa and Kiwako Taichi) they then set fire to the hut and leave the pair inside to be burnt alive. As the fire dies down and the smoke settles a black cat appears crying in the ashes of the homestead and licking the bodies of the dead women.
Time passes and the townsfolk soon start to spread the tale of the strange occurrences happening at the city gate. It seems that when samurai pass through they are met by a finely dressed young woman who asks if the warrior will accompany her home through the bamboo grove.
Once at the ladies abode they meet her mother who offers them a drink and once they’re relaxed the men are seduced and slaughtered as the ghostly apparitions transform into cat people and drink their blood. The men are found the next day dead in the burnt out remains of what used to be a house and the killings continue anew with no end in sight.
As the massacre goes on a young man returns to the town unaware of the occult occurrences and bringing with him the head of one of the samurai chief’s greatest enemies which he took in a great battle.
Hailed as a hero, the man is asked if he can rid the land of these ghostly women, but it is only when he meets them that he realises these phantom figures are his own wife and mother. Stuck between duty and love he must make the hardest decision of his life, a decision that could lead to his death.
Beautifully filmed and well ahead of his time in his techniques, Kaneto Shindo masterfully tells this ancient ghost story in a modern medium using the shadows in the shots to great effect. He manages to masterfully create confusion and the air of unreality that the samurai experience in the spirits presence by employing quick cuts and flashes of the women cat forms to further this mystical and menacing atmosphere.
Shindo also manages to embed his film with a heavy dose of realism that increases its relevance in the same way he did with Onibaba. In many ways the two films are perfect companion pieces, both centered on a mother and daughter-in-law trying desperately to survive in a war torn world dominated by men.
In Onibaba the sensual and overpowering sexuality of the younger woman is what drove the older woman to the disturbing and destructive end. However, in Kuroneko the love between the husband and wife is celebrated with the younger woman damning herself to an eternity in hell just for a few more nights on earth with her husband who she thought she had lost.
In this way Kuroneko is as much a tragic love story as it is a horror and as emotionally haunting as it is visually with the husband Hachi (Nakamura Kichiemon II) becoming utterly obsessed with seeing his family while desperately trying to deal with the fact that they are not only spirits but vengeful ones who have brutally murdered many other men.
As much about grief and loss as it is about the evils created by man’s lust for power and dominance over women, Kuroneko is a brilliant ghost story made by a master film maker as evocative and affecting today as it ever was.