I'm trying to see more Japanese cinema by filmmakers not named Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, or Naruse. Japan has always been renowned for their familial dramas, but I'm trying to get more of a taste of their noir/thrillers and horror films. A really great example of the latter is Kuroneko, Kaneto Shindo's provocative ghost story, that, for all its merits, ultimately reaches greatness by the sheer power of its images. Shindo's widescreen black and white canvas (that combination of film gauge and color still carries the greatest power in film to me) fulfills all the classic uses of shadows and light that one would hope for, yet it also has a ghostly, almost translucent quality to it. From a narrative standpoint, Kuroneko is a mighty ghost story, yet what's even more compelling is that it looks like a ghost story. If you can get a hold of the Criterion DVD of the film, the cover is designed so that the ghost gracing it appears and fades away depending on how the light plays upon the surface. In a way the whole film feels like that in the way it uses unusually bright lights, domineering nighttime bamboo woods, and rolling fog.
Kuroneko falls under the category of horror movies that aren't set out to scare the viewer. In other words, on its own terms, the story is rather terrifying, yet it's not ever designed to draw on the viewer's emotions. Maybe it's what you would call a horror narrative rather than a horror film. Set in feudal Japan, and with plenty of echoes of Ugetsu, the film opens with a pack of samurai savagely raiding a community, stealing food, and mercilessly killing the women. Of those slaughtered, two, a mother and her daughter, are optioned to return as ghosts and exact revenge by killing every samurai alive.
The daughter stands in the dark bamboo forrest, waits for a samurai to come by on horseback, lures him to her home, and proceeds with an act of seduction and murder. That set-up, a great albeit familiar revenge fantasy, could never carry the film, and Shindo knows it. The real weight behind the story comes when the ghost daughter's husband, who was taken from his fields three years before and forced to become a samurai, returns from a long journey and meets his dead wife in the forrest. It becomes a film that's quite moving, and even sad (as much as Ghost entertained me, this is so much better!), yet Shindo wisely never forgets that this a horror film. Just when it seems the film is crossing into the land of romantic fantasy, it offers a pretty invigorating gut punch and a dazzling final twenty minutes (including one of the better severed-limb scenes you'll find). I love an unpredictable horror film, and while this one isn't more scary for it, it certainly adds to the overall eerie sense of discomfort Shindo establishes early on.
There's another title for the film, which is A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove. It's a little wordy, but it calls on a central visual in the film, which is the bamboo forest in which much of the action occurs. These plants, so massive they're like trees, have a strange, almost artificial quality to them that lends itself perfectly to this material. They loom and dominate the landscape, yet they have none of the strange, twisty branches in a normal tree that typically make the woods at night its own, spooky character. Instead they mostly stand upright like poles in the ground, so smooth as, like I said, to not seem quite real. In this way I might say they're almost as terrifying as the typical warped trees one would expect to see in a horror movie forrest. Shindo's finest compositions come during these scenes. I might add that he makes the best use of bamboo next to House of Flying Daggers.
Shindo was a prolific and long-lived filmmaker, up there with Oliviera as far as durability goes. He just died in 2012 at the rich age of one hundred, and released his final movie, Postcard, just a year before that. He always had a a bit of a feminist bent in his work, and he's definitely not shy about it in Kuroneko. While it's ultimately a film about the human condition, much of the story is driven by the avenging of man's ill-treatment towards the opposite sex. At the end there's not a male figure to be found worth imitating. As much as I love the American cowboy, give it to Japan to trump the U.S. with their feudal-age samurai in terms of complexity. Kurosawa and Mizoguchi were great at it, but what Shindo does here is mighty impressive, too. But at the end, he's not really concerned with feminist or samurai agendas. He's ultimately motivated by finding, in strange and startling ways, the personhood of the female and samurai.