Director : Kaneto Shindo
Screenplay : Kaneto Shindo
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1968
Stars : Kichiemon Nakamura (Gintoki), Nobuko Otowa (Yone), Kiwako Taichi (Shige), Kei Satô (Raiko), Taiji Tonoyama (A Farmer), Rokko Toura (A Samurai), Hideo Kanze (Mikado)
Rooted in ancient Japanese folklore, Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (Black Cat) is a film firmly rooted in both earthbound psychological torment and otherworldly vengeance. It is thus a significant departure from the majority of the director’s films, which are praised for their postwar realism and strong social commentary (although often criticized for their sentimentality and pathos). Japanese film historian Donald Richie described Shindo as “one of Japan’s best pictorialists,” an assertion that Kuroneko amply supports. Elegantly shot in visceral, expressionistic black-and-white that stylishly fills the expansive TohoScope frame, Kuroneko is a visually ravishing film whose aesthetic intrigue helps round out a (perhaps overly) familiar tale of love, loss, and revenge.
Like many of Shinto’s films, including his unnerving melodrama Onibaba (1964), Kuroneko is set during the war-torn era of feudal Japan, when the country was divided among warring factions and the countryside was beset with roaming samurai fighting for various warlords. In the film’s opening sequence, we are introduced to Yone (Nobuko Otowa, Shindo’s wife and frequent collaborator), a widow whose son had been forcibly conscripted into war several years earlier, and Shige (Kiwako Taichi), her daughter-in-law. In a startling high-angle shot, we watch as a large group of samurai emerge from the surrounding bamboo and descend on their small farmhouse, first stealing their food and water, and then brutally raping and killing them. The depiction of samurai as lustful, violent vagrants given to theft, rape, and murder was generally uncommon in Japanese cinema, which tended to depict them as noble warriors, but not in Shindo’s body of work. Because Shindo grew up in a poor farming family and self-identified with the class consciousness of socialism, he viewed the world through the eyes of the commoners, rather than the lords, of Japanese history, and as a result samurai often play the role of villains in his films.
Via the supernatural powers of a mysterious black cat, Yone and Shige return as vengeful spirits who prey on isolated samurai, luring them into a dark bamboo forest and ripping out their throats and drinking their blood (which interestingly conflates many of the horror genre’s quintessential monstrosities: ghosts, werewolves, and vampires). The repeated slaughter of the samurai understandably concerns their local warlord, Raiko (Kei Satô), and he calls in Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), one of his most noble warriors, and gives him the mission of finding and killing the “monsters.” Gintoki, however, is Yone’s son and Shige’s husband, which understandably complicates his mission once he is lured back to their abode and finds himself starring at the faces of his mother and wife. He is unsure of who they are, as they could be demonic spirits taking the form of his loved ones, although they are tragically all too aware of who he is. One of the film’s most rending moments is an extended long take in which Shige wails uncontrollably over her desire to be with her husband while Yone tries to reassure her, knowing all the while that they have committed themselves to killing all samurai, including Gintoki.
If the story itself is somewhat familiar from countless Japanese folk tales and their various film incarnations during the resurgence of Japanese cinema in the 1950s and 1960s--not to mention Shinto’s Onibaba, which also features a mother and daughter-in-law who kill samurai in the wilderness of war-torn feudal Japan--Kuroneko still maintains a heady sense of intrigue and dramatic power via Shinto’s impressive visual flair. The film moves fluidly between the cinematic invisible and the overtly theatrical, mixing impressive tracking shots and dexterous editing with attention-grabbing devices like rear-projection that makes the house appear as if it is subtly moving and obvious lighting cues that make us feel like the events are transpiring on a stage. Shinto also borrows from Kabuki tradition, especially the use of wirework that allows his spirit characters to fly through the air with inhuman grace and agility, even when one of them is clutching a dismembered feline arm in her teeth. The film itself never consistently maintains the agility and ferocity of its best scenes, but it still exerts a pulsing primal force that makes its mixture of the supernatural and the melodramatic all the more evocative.
|Kuroneko Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|Kuroneko is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||Japanese PCM 1.0 monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||October 18, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Making its Region 1 debut, Kuroneko has been given a 4K transfer from a 35mm print struck from the original camera negative. The 1080p transfer is gorgeous, with deep, inky blacks, glistening whites, and excellent contrast. The depth of the grayscale allows for minute details in the set design and lighting to have maximum impact, and the digital restoration has removed virtually all signs of age and wear. The original monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the original optical print and digitally restored, removing all traces of ambient hiss and aural artifacts. The musical score by Hikaru Kiyashi is especially intriguing with its mix of traditional instrumentation, percussion, and otherworldly sounds and tones.|
|The supplements include an hour-long video interview with writer/director Kaneto Shindo by his former assistant, director Seijiro Koyama, which was recorded in 1998 by the Directors Guild of Japan; a new 16-minute video interview with film critic Tadao Sato, who discusses the film’s artistry, social commentary, and historical relevance; and the original Japanese theatrical trailer. The insert booklet contains an essay by film critic Maitland McDonagh and an excerpt from film scholar Joan Mellen’s 1972 interview with Shindo|
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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