Along with 1968’s vicious Onibaba, 1968’s Kuroneko – or 藪の中の黒猫 Yabu No Naka No Kuroneko – which translates as A Black Cat In A Bamboo Grove – represents a gorgeous oasis of Samurai gothic in the varied career of the provocative Kaneto Shindô.
Despite the many genres touched on by Shindô, all of his key themes are represented in this beautiful piece of monochrome supernatural horror – Mario Bava by way of Akira Kurosawa.
From class to sexuality and the role of women, Kuroneko manages to touch on it all as a mother (Onibaba‘s Nobuko Otowa) and daughter (Kiwako Taichi) are raped and murdered by battle-weary Samurai during the frequent internal power struggles and the rise of the professional warrior caste that characterised the Heian period of Imperial Japan (794 to 1185 CE). Their farm is left a charred ruin.
Yonge (Otowa) and Shige (Taichi) make a pact with the underworld that grants them unlife as feline succubi, ghostly and vampire-like they’ve sworn their revenge by seducing lone Samurai, leading them to their house and letting the frequently boorish warriors have their way with Shige, who then tears out their throat.
Unexpectedly son and husband Gintoki (Nakamura Kichiemon II) finally returns from the war, but his deeds have raised him up to the role of Samurai – and with bitter irony he’s dispatched to find and slay the beast or beasts that have been killing warriors in the bamboo grove, pitting his vow on a collision course with that of his family.
Beautifully shot and choreographed, the Kabuki theatre background of Kichiemon II and many of the other cast lends itself to a fitting melodrama – all stylised turns and definite, pronounced movements that are every bit the Japanese equal of Vincent Price or Barbara Steele’s scenery chewing in contemporaneous European and American horror movies. For genre fans, the depiction of the vampire spirits – and the simple techniques used to depict them, such as fleeting wire-work and carefully placed lights shining through white robes to give the wearer an ethereal quality – is utterly fascinating.
Surprisingly graphic – much as you’d expect from any film opening with a double-rape and murder – Kuroneko‘s real power comes from the double-punch of its themes and its haunting set-pieces, and not from the implied gristliness.
Shige chooses to sacrifice her immortality for seven days and seven nights with her beloved, and Gintoki’s forced to watch her fade away just as he thought her restored to him. Meanwhile his mother chooses the less noble path, succumbing more fully to her demonic bloodlust – culminating in a memorable scene where she assaults her son as he attempts to purify himself in front of a shrine, masquerading as seer sent by the Emperor to try and recover the fur-covered cat-monster arm he severed.
Gintoki whether through the blade of his katana, or the sharper still steel of love, he’s forced to hurt those closest to him, while Shige and Yonge must choose between their humanity – and death – and their inhumanity – and eternal life. A very reduced tale with the barest handful of locations – most of the film takes place in the vampires’ mist-enshrouded home, or the bamboo grove where they find and then later abandon their prey – Kuroneko feels very intimate, and because of it the fate of its protagonists even more tragic.
As with all of Eureka!’s Masters Of Cinema series, the HD transfer in the original aspect ratio is superb, and although there’s no extras (apart from a trailer), the 32-page booklet with newly unearthed images, an essay, and an old interview with Shindô go some way toward making up for that.