KURONEKO (BLACK CAT)
Reviewed by Clarissa K. Wittenberg
Directed by Kaneto Shindo. 1968
The title means “Black Cat” in English. Accepted for the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, the showing was canceled after “Bloody Monday,” when a violent student protest in France shut down the Sorbonne and ignited action by the labor unions.
Kuroneko is a stunning film with ancient themes and yet, with relevance as fresh as today’s news. The film unwinds a parable of dark and light, of irrevocable vows of aggression and vengeance and a warning that noble vows can turn to tragedy. This film is in the long tradition of Japanese horror films, but make no mistake, this is not an American slasher film. It foreshadows the beauty of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with its luminous ghosts tumbling in towering bamboo groves high above the heads of their murderers.
Set in the Sengoku period, a woman and her daughter are raped and murdered and their hut burned by hungry desperate soldiers during a time of civil war. A black cat cries and appears through the smoke to lick their torn bodies. During the next few years samurai traveling through their grove are found dead with their throats torn out. No traces are left of the Onryo (vengeful ghosts) who have enticed them to their home and served them sake before destroying them. A young samurai appears at the Imperial Court with the head of his last enemy and as a reward is sent to kill the monsters responsible for the samurai deaths. He hunts down the ghosts and finds two beautiful women in gossamer robes that appear to be his missing wife and mother. Unable to resist the younger woman he gathers her in an erotic embrace before she disappears. Upon returning to his master, he is threatened with death for failing to destroy the monsters and is dispatched again to kill the remaining demon. He then returns and confronts the ghost of his mother. At this point the story is chilling, as both are locked in vows to destroy the other. It would be unfair to disclose the ending of the film.
Shot in black and white, this motif is repeated in the gorgeous white transparent robes, in the dark beautiful horses, crows and other animals and the ever-present somber grove of bamboo.
And in case you are wondering why Japan has a tradition of horror films, just a few words may remind you: spiritual tales of ancestors, Japanese internment in the United States, Hiroshima, Nagaski, military defeat, the Vietnam War, and centuries of earthquakes, and tsunamis. And consider titles from news reports in this week’s Washington Post: “Dread and uncertainty creep into everyday life for Japanese,” “Latest explosion raises radiation fears.”
Clarissa K. Wittenberg was a founder and editor of the Washington Review, a journal of arts and literature that documented cultural life in Washington for over 28 years. She is currently Creative Director at the Washington Film Institute.