There’s few things in horror-dom that I detest more than movies about werewolves, witches, and/or hauntings in general. Besides the hilariously awesome Howling III: the Marsupials, I can’t think of any noteworthy films about werewolves. Witches fair even worse, since cinema’s top witch, the Wicked Witch of the West doesn’t star in a genre film. And spirits, angry or benign, just seem silly. If I can’t be bothered with believing in a benevolent God, what’re the chances that I’d settle for a vengeful one? So it’s with these reservations that I sat down to watch Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (“Black Cat” for us English speakers).
Over the course of the past year, I’ve tried watching this film four or five times. Getting closer to finishing it each time, but never quite making it all the way. Each time, I ran into the same roadblock: predictability.
Kuroneko is a revenge tale. Two women, wife Shige (Kiwako Taichi) and mother Yone (Otowa), are brutally raped and murdered by a roving gang of bandits while their respective husband/son Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) is out fighting for the Shogun. These ladies return as ghouls hungry for revenge; inviting tired samurai into their home for a (eternal) rest.
Our hero, Gintokii, does well in the war, defeating a bandit in a battle that felled the rest of his battalion. Gintoki gets promoted to samurai, and given the task of “[finding] the monster that’s been feasting on the necks of [the Shogun’s] samurai and exterminate it.”
This is where the predictability rears its ugly head. We, the viewer, already know that the two women are ghosts. We saw the titular black cats absorb their souls in the aftermath of their cottage’s destruction. So we’re essentially left waiting for Gintoki to figure this out too.
Only this was the wrong way to watch this film. I was focusing on what the story was, rather than how the story was told. This made all the difference.
What Kuroneko has going for it is Kaneto Shindo’s pronounced direction. The film looks gorgeous. Much praise is due to whoever did the lighting (unfortunately such technical information has been lost); lighting which provides some of the starkest contrasts between the blacks and whites seen in awhile. Shinge and Yone, the ghosts, are always shown radiant.
Shindo forgoes traditional flashback conventions (i.e. cutting to another scene altogether), instead superimposing evocative imagery over the reminiscer. Best showcased by the ghosts’ first victim, who, as he explains how the war has actually been good for the peasants, has the house behind him change from billowing curtains to a maze of bamboo.
After his murder, we’re treated to her pensive mother sitting alone in the house; which is now mid-transformation back into a forest. The houses’ support beams having now become the bamboo shoots from the samurai’s memory.
Another nice touch is how Shindo buffers the hauntings from the parts of the story in “the real world.” While the ghost catwomen/demons are almost always shot in Sergio Leone-esque close-ups; which, when combined with the beautiful black and white interplay, lends those scenes an otherworldly feel. The non-supernatural scenes, by comparison, look like outtakes from Seven Samurai. While close-ups also permeate the rest of the film, but without the stylistic light interplay, the effect is decidedly different.
Naturally, it doesn’t take long for Gintoki to figure the situation out. This is, after all, his home turf, and now there’s a new house with two women he sort of recognizes living there, who claim to be from the area yet have no recollections past the four years ago when he went to war. Quickly realizing that the jig is up, Gintoki and his wife, Shige get back to loving, while his mother, Yone in a brilliantly subtle mother-in-law way, continues ghouling in a disapproving manner.
And we soon find out way. After a week of celebrating their 2nd honeymoon, Gintoki returns to the house to find Shige missing. Questioning his mother about it, he finds out the truth behind their existence: they both made deals with the demons ruling hell to return to Earth, and, in exchange, have to do a demon’s work. In this case kill samurai. If they don’t, their contracts broken, and they return to the hell that spawned them.
So Gintoki essentially screwed his wife (back) to death!
This leads to an interesting exchange between Gintoki and his boss, Raiko (Kei Sato). Raiko wants to know why no progress has been made in the case. Gintoki tries explaining that killing ghosts is kind of impossible; considering, you know, they’re already dead. So Raiko tells Gintoki an amusing anecdote about how he himself overcome such odds.
Years ago, Raiko was in the same position as Gintoki is now. Tasked with killing a demon that was terrorizing the countryside. Raiko recognized the impossibility of his task; as ghosts aren’t real. So Raiko beheaded a local bandit instead. Presented that head as that of the “demon,” and was promoted for his troubles! Raiko ending his with an ultimatum: bring back the ghost’s head, or lose his own.
So Gintoki goes for the only option left open to him, and throws himself off the Rashomon Gate. Now in the ghost world, Gintoki can effectively battle the ghost. A battle which causes the ghost to lose its arm. (In a nice touch, once dismembered from its ghost body, the arm stays the size of a normal arm, but covered in cat hair.)
Gintoki then brings the ghost arm (hairy as a werewolf foreclaw) back to Raiko. Who is understandably shocked by Gintoki’s follow through. Apparently one can’t just present the Emperor with demon bodyparts as gifts though, said gifts have to be purified in a temple. So Gintoki now gets locked in a temple to watch over the demon arm.
Which gives the ghost just enough time to recoup and come back for her arm. A(nother) battle ensues in the temple, one where the ghost is finally vanquished. A pyrrhic victory though, as Gintoki had to sacrifice his own life to achieve it. The film ending with a shot of his corpse lying in the snowy ruins of the same farm.