It might not be the most frightening of films, but it has atmosphere in buckets
“Our vow is to kill samurai and suck their blood. So we invoked the evil gods.”
“If only he were not a samurai…”
Japan’s big horror names have more or less all come from the last twenty years. I’ve reviewed a few of them, and have by and large mostly disliked them. To me, they’ve always followed a predictable story and while they can have some great moments of tension and scares, they’ve never felt all that innovative. So this time I decided to jump back a few decades and check out Kuroneko.
The film centres around two women: Yone (Nobuko Otowa), and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi), who are spending their days awaiting the return of Hachi (Nakamura Kichiemon II) – Shige’s husband and Yone’s son. One day, a band of roving soldiers comes to their house in the grove, and they proceed to destroy everything, rape both women in turn and eventually burn down the house, leaving them both for dead. A black cat comes by and licks their wounds clean and they return as ghosts with a vendetta against all samurai. They lead unwitting men back to their phantom house in the middle of the grove before Shige seduces and kills them.
Meanwhile, Hachi has returned from war a hero and is made samurai by legendary warrior Minamoto no Raiko (Kei Sato). He decides to visit his family, but finds nothing but a burnt-down shack. Raiko has heard of the ghosts attacking samurai and asks Hachi to investigate. This leads Hachi in confrontation with the two spirits whose deal with an evil god obligates them to see him as a target.
Kuroneko markets itself as a horror, and for all intents and purposes, it is. The story revolves around vengeful spirits – a Japanese staple – and the progression is what you’ve come to expect. After a string of weird ghost-murders, one person tries to investigate. We’ve seen this in Ringu, The Grudge, The Eye, One Missed Call and countless others, but where Kuroneko deviates from the norm (the norm that wouldn’t happen for several decades, that is) and makes itself way ahead of its time is how it chooses to spend most of its time on the ghosts.
This is an excellent direction to take and gives us this great point of view from the spirits. Hachi is a fine character – completely passable! – but he’s pretty flat. Instead of the mystery of the haunting being what drives the story forwards, it’s instead the struggle that these two characters are going through. Yone is definitely more devoted to her dark pact than Shige, who would rather risk an eternity of damnation if it means being able to spend more time with her husband.
I can see how Kuronekoi won’t make everyone’s top 10 horrors list. An internal conflict happening to a spirit of vengeance might not appeal to some people, which is fair enough. This is definitely by far one of the (intentionally) least frightening horrors I’ve seen , but this to me is a breath of fresh air. Director Kaneto Shindo seems to have approached it the way someone else might approach a film noir. The story is important, but the focus is on the inner turmoil the central characters are going through, and he puts all his energies into that. Sure, the story is nothing special but it doesn’t pretend to have a great mystery that needs solving, either.
This is evident in the film’s fantastic visuals. The default colour is black, which permeates the frame at every opportunity. The grim atmosphere is empahsied by high-contrast moments of pure white, usually focused on the spirits. Using only spotlights and some clever framing (and a couple of weird, extremely high eyebrows), Shindo makes two regular women in white kimono look like genuine spirits. The use of editing to portray a sense of magic and the supernatural is done often by overlaying film: a bamboo grove and a hapless samurai, or a burnt cottage and the ghosts’ lavish house give you a sense that what you see isn’t real. It’s a simple trick that is really effective and helps give Kuroneko a visual signature.
Verdict: Filled with atmospheric music, moody lighting and some subdued performances, Kuroneko is less horror, more supernatural noir
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall Entertainment: 9/10
Violence: Surprisingly little/10
Black cats: 1
Freaky demon makeup: 5/10
Decapitations: 1, but it’s pretty good
Milhouse eyebrows: Plenty
Also known as: Black Cat, 藪の中の黒猫 Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko (Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove)
Director: Kaneto Shindo
Writer: Kaneto Shindo
Kichiemon Nakamura as Hachi (aka Gintoki)
Nobuko Otowa as Yone
Kiwako Taichi as Shige
Kei Sato as Raiko
Taiji Tonoyama as Farmer
Hideo Kanze as Mikado