***½/**** Image A Sound B Extras B
starring Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi, Kei Sato
written and directed by Kaneto Shindo
by Walter Chaw A band of ronin alights on a clearing before a modest, thatched-roof hut and, like the dead before Odysseus's offerings of a trough of blood, drinks deep from the stream running through it. They wipe their mouths. They are underfed. They enter the residence to find Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and Shige (Kiwaki Taichi) sharing a frugal repast the starving ronin wordlessly take from them and wolf down. We learn later that all the Japanese feudal world is at war--"It's a samurai's world now... We eat our fill and take whatever we desire"--and so this band of rough men gang-rape, murder, and immolate the mother and her daughter-in-law before pressing on into the woods. The image of smoke billowing out of this little lodge is, for all the haunted moments to come, the one that lingers from Kaneto Shindo's odd, savage Kuroneko. Yone and Shige emerge from the fire newly pasty-white and as formalized as Noh performers, making the intercession of a black cat*, in a scene borrowed directly by Tim Burton for Catwoman's resurrection in Batman Returns (still Burton's nakedest lunch), that much more glaring in its contrast.
The level of atrocity in Kuroneko is matched by its visual invention and audacity. Released in Japan in 1968, it is at least the equal of the same year's Rosemary's Baby (and reminiscent in many ways of another picture from '68, Once Upon a Time in the West) in terms of perversion, outrage, and the variety of ambiguous capitulation in its last frames that allows films like Kuroneko to claim The Virgin Spring as their direct antecedent in far purer bloodlines than less ambiguous--indeed, less ambitious--homages like I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left. What Kuroneko pulls off is no less than an honest-to-Shinto examination of masculine ego, Oedipal complications, storytelling, and the sticky Nipponese legacy of comportment during wartime, as well as, more generally, the dread artifacts of any excavation of the sins of the father. Yone and Shige, delivered through their unnatural rebirth into the legions of the undead, become feline succubae, haunting the forests that fall under the jurisdiction of prefect Raiko (Kei Sato) and luring men by the tips of their vanity to their bloody doom in a bamboo grove. The follow-up to Shindo's awesomely batshit Onibaba, Kuroneko deals with similar dynamics (mother/daughter-in-law; masculine/feminine; morality/violence; high/low) in a more traditionally-stylized manner, ritualizing the human mating ritual into absurd motions and countermotions (note a scene where a man contemplating coupling with his dead wife is juxtaposed against the man's dead mother performing a traditional dance) before ripping the mask off all that courtliness and manner to reveal the scratch/piss/hiss of actual fucking, feral and bestial. Small wonder that the Japanese genre of kaiden eiga houses an entire sub-genre populated with spectral cat-people. (Val Lewton (and Cocteau) fans, take note.)
Samurai Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) is assigned the task of clearing the forest of its predators, but we've seen that Gintoki got his rank by being the only survivor of an epic battle, besting an opponent through an accident of Gintoki's own cowardice. He's not worthy. In a scene of another unnatural rebirth, he's bathed by a coterie of geisha, each subsequent bucket of water doused over his head like a baptismal font unveiling Gintoki's transformation from object of ridicule into a creature of arrogance formed from a really good lie. (Cinematically, it's in the same ballpark as Lon Chaney becoming the Wolf Man one match-cut at a time.) Gintoki is a paper tiger. He's also Shige's husband and Yone's son. When he discovers the identities of the ghouls, he embraces Shige anyway. "Your legs, your breasts, they're just like Shige's. You are Shige." At this point, it's clear that Gintoki suspects it's not Shige, but rather some horrible, blood-slurping cat-ghost that looks like her--but, hell, good enough for him. Opera composer Hikaru Hayashi's score (heavily influenced by Masaru Satoh's definitive work on Yojimbo) during the sex scenes between Gintoki and Shige climaxes in odd, flat moments with a little trumpet flourish. If you're listening closely, it is the very wail of despair. Cliff Martinez borrows heavily from this phrase and its implications in his music for Soderbergh's Solaris, which, not incidentally, also features scenes of a man, perhaps unworthy of a task bequeathed him, bedding the ghost of his dead wife. A lot of tributaries begin in Kuroneko, but what doesn't originate here is this tension, beautifully explored, between the realities of the women in men's lives, and the glamour men lavish upon them that they can't possibly begin to satisfy. Shige is the projection of Gintoki's memory and loneliness. He tells her, "I want to devour you. I want to chew you up and consume you"--and that he does, violating the terms of Shige's unearthly probation (kill all samurai, tell no one why) and damning her to an eternity in Hell.
Yone honours the terms of her existence. Gintoki asks for answers; there are none forthcoming. His emasculation reminds of the moment he tells his story to his eventual lord, holding the head of his unfortunate bettor, a small harem of servant girls giggling at first his crotch, then his exposed nipple, then his sandaled feet. He is similarly small and ridiculous before his mother. He chastises her; she demurs. He attacks her and chops off her arm (which, again in perfect Universal Monsters fashion, dissolves into a cat's paw); she invades his sanctuary later that night to take it back. She says that samurais are horrible; he says, "But, I'm a samurai." The look in her eye suggests she knows otherwise, as mothers will. At the end, their eyes meet over bloodlust and recrimination, and it becomes apparent that throughout this ordeal, he's been entirely incapable of separating himself from his mother's influence--and it's this, more than anything, that colours every aggressive interaction in the film. (Men exacting violence upon women; the spectre of their mothers redressing it.) All this without addressing Kuroneko's visual ingenuity, its double-exposures and split-screens, or wuxia--the oppressive mood that distils the prologue to Kurosawa's Throne of Blood into a feature's worth of atmosphere and foreboding. It's a gorgeous, loaded piece, an end-of-the-world bit about the beginnings of it. I don't think it's a coincidence that it begins and ends in ash and apocalypse, knowing, as we do, that Shindo, director of Children of Hiroshima (also starring wife Otowa), was born in Hiroshima.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion presents the b&w Kuroneko on Blu-ray in a 2.35:1, 1080p transfer taken from the original 35mm camera negative. It looks amazing. The night sequences are free of artifacting, while the contrast throughout--even in sun-washed daytime sequences--is vivid and supple. Grain is tastefully preserved, the image is stable, and any print defects that resisted Criterion's usual rigorous clean-up are minor and unobtrusive. Remastered in uncompressed LPCM mono (1.0), the Japanese-language audio betrays more interference, if arguably to the movie's benefit. The opening sequence with the marauding ronin slaking their thirst at a stream is startlingly loud and obviously over-dubbed…. It's funny 'til you realize that this question of appetites is the crank that turns the proverbial gears.
Upconverted for this release to 1080i, an hour-long Q&A with Shindo from 1988 conducted by longtime AD Seijiro Koyami begins with Koyami declaring that over the course of their 30-year relationship, he spent the first five years afraid to talk to the director and had to be cajoled into doing this interview. Shindo is a compelling raconteur, telling a story about the relative value of screenplays in the golden era of Japanese filmmaking that I adore. He cites influences, chief among them early screenings of pictures by Sadao Yamanaka, and speaks of developing his philosophies of improvisation, editing, and narrative while hand-spooling and drying fresh negatives. Invaluable stuff. As Shindo is still living, however, I would have loved a commentary track from him. Also included is a new featurette (17 mins., HD) with critic Tadao Sato, who offers a disappointingly fanboyish take on the cultural significance of Shindo and Kuroneko. A handsome 30-page booklet packaged with the disc contains a passable essay on the film by Maitland McDonagh in addition to an excerpt from a 1972 interview with Shindo that clarifies his socialist leanings, his Freudian fixation, his identity as a Japanese filmmaker, and his belief in melodrama as a vital form for the telling of certain stories. It is, all of it, a keeper. Originally published: December 13, 2011.
*In some circles, Kuroneko is known as The Black Cat from the Grove or simply Black Cat. return