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  • Ravi Swami

"Kuroneko", Dir: Kaneto Shindo, 1968

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

"Kuroneko" (Eng: "Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove"), produced and distributed by Japan's Toho Studios fits neatly into the genre occupied by films like "Onibaba", director Kaneto Shindo's earlier 1962 atmospheric supernatural story, also shot in monochrome, and the later "Kwaidan", that tap into Japanese folklore surrounding ghosts and "Yokai" or supernatural monsters.

Both "Onibaba" and "Kuroneko" also reflect themes common to Japanese supernatural films that tap into Shinto Buddhism and that may be lost on Western audiences, such as the concept of karma and paying of debts in life, after death.

Both films are quite dark and "Kuroneko" revisits the setting of feudal Medieval Japan during a time when chaos reigned of Shindo's earlier film - endless military campaigns waged between rival warring clans took their toll on the peasant classes and status depended upon the number of people that an individual could kill in the service of the samurai warlords who held sway over the peasantry.

The opening sequence of the film, which paints a picture of rural tranquility featuring a peasant dwelling on the edge of a bamboo grove, is set against this backdrop of turmoil, though this only becomes apparent after a lingering shot where the only sound is that of cicadas chirping.

A group of ragged mercenaries emerge from the bamboo grove and make their way to the hut, first to drink from a small stream that flows in front of it and then to enter, following one who appears to be their leader.

Inside a woman and her daughter are about to eat a meagre meal and the leader of the group falls ravenously on a steamer full of rice and then the other men follow suit as the women look on, terrified. The entire sequence and what follows is wordless which adds to the horror as the two women are systematically raped by the men after they have sated their hunger and then they leave.

Clouds of smoke soon billow from the hut as the men disappear into the bamboo grove and before long the hut is reduced to a smoking heap in the middle of which, somehow or other, the mother and daughter lie, not burned but clearly dead.

Out of nowhere a black cat appears and sniffs around the two bodies, meowing forlornly before licking the blood on the neck of one of the women.

In common with many directors and writers of his era and not just in Japan in the post-war period, Shindo's work often highlighted the place of women in society, suggesting that the status of women in the 20th century has its' roots in the aggressively masculine cultures of the past and the opening sequence establishes the premise of the film in a way that is necessarily shocking.

The plot shifts to some time later and a lone samurai on horseback is patrolling a gate to a prefecture at night when he notices the spectral figure of a young woman dressed in fine clothes emerging from the darkness.

He stops and questions her, asking why she is there, alone and at such a late hour, and if she is a ghost and she replies by saying that she lives nearby just beyond the bamboo grove and would appreciate it if he would accompany her through it to her home, to which he agrees.

The samurai is clearly a nobleman since he is on horseback and because of his attire, and his face seems familiar.

Once they reach the entrance to the young womans' home she invites him inside for refreshments as a sign of her gratitude, saying that she lives there alone with her mother, and the samurai accepts.

The samurai is surprised to see that the woman's home appears to be that of a nobleman's and questions why it is in such a remote location but receives no answer, and soon they are joined by another, older woman, who is the young woman's mother. She brings sake and some food and the samurai welcomes their hospitality.

Before long the samurai is drunk on sake and after proclaiming that samurai have the right to take whatever they want, he makes a play for the young woman and she complies. The woman's mother leaves them alone and they make love through the night before the samurai dozes off in a drunken stupor, and this is when the true nature of the young woman is revealed as she bites into his neck and drinks his blood before ripping his throat out.

As the camera pans off this gruesome scene and into the darkness of the bamboo grove beyond, we hear the distant meowing of a cat.

What follows are a series of vignettes repeating the same scenario as various samurai are dispatched in the same horrible way, their mutilated bodies strewn throughout the bamboo grove for rag pickers to scavenge their clothes and soon the deaths come to the attention of the feudal warlord, who demands that the "Yokai", or monster, responsible, be killed, since the grisly nature of the deaths can only be ascribed to some supernatural cause.

Having failed to kill the "monster' after using himself as bait, the warlord's second in command offers a bounty of high status on anyone who can kill the monster and a candidate that appears happens to be the husband of the young woman, conscripted to fight for the warlord in some distant locality 3 years previously.

He returns with the head of one of the barbarian tribes on the edges of the prefecture and as a result is given the status of a samurai, rising above that of his previous peasant farmer status.

Unaware that both his mother and wife have been murdered, he returns to his former home only to find it a burned out shell and no one knows the whereabouts of the two women.

Bound by a vow to his superior to find and kill the "ghost", he patrols the prefecture gate at night and on one such night he encounters the spectral young woman, however, this time, he offers to accompany her on her way before she has an opportunity to ask him and her manner seems different to previously.

Like the other samurai who preceded him, he accepts the hospitality of the young woman and her mother, who seem to him to bear an uncanny resemblance to his wife and mother and when he questions them about this they seem oddly reticent, though the mother remarks on the curious coincidence that the samurai and her son were both absent for a period of 3 years.

To reveal more of the plot as it unfolds would be a spoiler, suffice to say that the two women are the ghosts of the murdered women who are bound to the earth until they have wiped out all samurai, starting with the men who murdered them in life, and they take the form of cats - the "neko" of the title - in daylight.

What makes the film striking is the use of monochrome and lighting design that is very influenced by Kabuki theatre, an aspect that also informs the spectacular wire work to depict the ghostly acrobatics of the two women. Spectral forms emerge out of the blackness lit by pools of light that have no logical source and often the cinemascope frame is nothing but inky blackness out of which the stark edges of bamboo and architectural forms appear, imparting a graphic quality that could suggest that B/W is the perfect medium for this translating of stagecraft to film but which in fact reached a high point in the use of colour in the stylized portmanteau of ghost stories that form "Kwaidan".

Imaginative editing is used to link the women to the black cat without resorting to complex visual effects or makeup, instead opting for the economy of Kabuki theatre to suggest through the use of sound, the only concession being a few transformation shots of the mother's arm turning into that of a were-cat that provide the necessary jolt when required.

Japanese folk mythology is replete with lore surrounding cats, with their implicit sensuality a metaphor for sexual desire, and vampire cats in particular, for example "The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima" and others, and to my knowledge this is one of very few Japanese genre films that explores these themes, the other notable example being the utterly surreal 1977 film "House".

"Kuroneko", Dir: Kaneto Shindo, 1968

Criterion Channel.

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