Triumph of the Spirit

Michael Joshua Rowin on Kuroneko

Kaneto Shindô, Kuroneko, 1968, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Left: Shige (Kiwako Taichi). Right: Gintoki and Yone (Kichiemon Nakamura and Nobuko Otowa).

JAPANESE CINEMA possesses a rich history of films about insanity, barbarism, and ghosts: Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (1926), Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), among the most prominent. A surprising entry to add to the list is Kaneto Shindô’s Kuroneko (Black Cat), an expressionistic fable of civil war–torn twelfth-century Japan and its decadent samurai class. By 1968, the year of the film’s release, Shindô had built his reputation on sober, realistic studies of social issues (Children of Hiroshima [1952]), primitive survival (The Naked Island [1962]), and human degradation (The Hole [1964]). But though Kuroneko is a stylistic anomaly within Shindô’s career, it is of a piece with his other work. The film is as much a dead-serious depiction of the corruption of power and the nihilistic seduction of death as it is of the spirit world, despite or perhaps because of its stylized treatment.

Much of the film’s eeriness comes from its unconventional sound design. After the opening credits, the first establishing shot shows from above a group of marauding samurai edging out of a forest, creeping up toward an isolated rural hut. All the accompanying noises—the glug-glugging of gulped water as the hungry warriors quench their thirst at a nearby stream, the abrasive rhythmic chirp of unseen crickets—create an ominous chorus. After a set of grotesque close-ups of leering samurai confronting a helpless young woman, Shige (Kiwako Taichi), and her mother-in-law Yone (Nobuko Otowa), the plot is set in motion: a gang rape, a torched hut, and the possible transference of souls to a black cat. The cat accompanies the nighttime appearance in the middle of the forest of the succubi as they lure samurai to their doom.

Like so many ghost stories across so many cultures, Kuroneko acts as a cautionary tale about human interaction on the astral plane. Sent to end the carnage these spirits wreak on the living, brave warrior Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) discovers they are the loved ones he had left behind upon going to war. He is unable to resist Shige but soon loses her after a weeklong erotic reunion—the bargain made with the “god of evil” prevents Shige from staying on earth once she has made contact with her beloved. The film can be broken up into two halves: the first a collection of Shige and Yone’s encounters with uncouth and amoral samurai—a revenge of the peasant class on the warrior class—the second a Shakespeare tragedy of impossible unification of the human and undead and the familial bonds that are torn asunder in the attempt to reverse the natural order. Throughout, Shindô employs a dizzying array of flamboyant techniques: moving sets, jump cuts, slo-mo trancelike dances and acrobatics, sharp chiaroscuro lighting, sheets of fog, theatrical spotlights. These flourishes may be influenced by Noh theater, but their execution is very much modern. One is reminded of German Expressionism, while the film’s explicit Freudianism and violent class-consciousness evoke the political and critical currents of its turbulent era.

Kuroneko plays October 22–28 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.