Friday, March 31, 2017

Kuroneko (1968)

Directed by: Kaneto Shindo
Screenplay by: Kaneto Shindo
Starring: Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Tochi, Kei Sato
Running Time: 99 minutes

10th century, Japan’s warring states period. A group of filthy, ragged samurai, fleeing a battle, descend upon a secluded farmhouse like a pack of starving wolves. Inside are only two women, Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi). The only man of the house, Hachi, (Kichiemon Nakamura), Yone’s son and Shige’s husband, was forcibly conscripted to fight against barbarians in the east months ago. The samurai greedily take any food and water they can get their hands on before attacking the women and gang-raping them, then set the farmhouse on fire to cover their crime. Curiously, despite the farmhouse going up in a fairly impressive blaze, Yone and Shige’s corpses are left completely unharmed by the fire. The only witness to this is their pet black cat, who proceeds to lick the two women’s wounds. Three years later, samurai traveling through the grove behind Rajomon Gate start turning up dead, their throats torn out and their blood drained. Under pressure from the shogun, boorish governer Raiko Minomoto (Kei Sato) dispatches his newest retainer Yabu-no-Gintoki to find out who or whatever is leaving dead samurai on his doorstep. Needless to say, it becomes readily apparent that Yone and Shige, reborn as shapeshifting feline specters, are behind this rash of murders, swearing vengeance not just against the men who murdered them but all samurai, and it falls to Gintoki to kill these wraiths. There’s but one minor little detail that just might complicate matters, though, because you see, Gintoki didn’t always go by Gintoki; that name was bestowed upon the samurai by Raiko as reward for slaying a fearsome warrior in battle. Before then, he was known as Hachi…

KURONEKO is a spiritual sibling to Kaneto Shindo’s more famous film ONIBABA, which also dealt with a mother and daughter duo who turn into monsters after they become victims of war. (Unlike KURONEKO’s pair, ONIBABA’s women needed no supernatural assistance to do so.) Drawing on numerous folktales about vengeful ghosts and trickster cat spirits, Shindo crafts an eerie revenge-from-beyond-the-grave story that slowly develops into something far more complicated, haunting, and tragic. It’s an anti-war film; in one early scene, a samurai comments on how the land itself seems to come unhinged in times of war, suggesting that war is a crime against nature itself. It’s also a proto-feminist reaction against a world where men are allowed to take whatever they want regardless of whom they destroy. More specifically KURONEKO is taking aim at one of Shindo’s favorite targets: the samurai class.

Don’t come into Shindo’s films expecting something like Kurosawa’s mythic paladins searching for purpose or even Hideo Gosha’s broken anti-heroes. To put it bluntly, the samurai in KURONEKO are a bunch of utter cretins, arrogant braggarts who view themselves above the commonfolk and boast about how great it is their position allows them to rob and abuse to their hearts content. This is something best exemplified by the film’s depiction of Raiko Minomoto, who was an actual historical figure refashioned into a demon-slaying mythological hero. Here Shindo’s lets all the air out of that particular image of the man. His Raiko is a hypocrite, – he trashes the nobles he serves for doing nothing but dallying around with women, but he himself isn’t seen doing much else besides fooling around with his harem of concubines – a fraud who reveals that his famous battle with the oni Shuten Doji was a complete fabrication (because there’s nothing particularly glorious about killing a simple bandit) and clueless as to why the ghosts of a couple peasants would hold a grudge against samurai right after he monologues about how peasants are worthless and exists only to serve them. It’s no wonder then that Yone and Shige’s vengeance goes beyond a simple I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE vendetta against their killers; their rape and deaths at the hands of those samurai were the end result of an inhumane system that thrives on men becoming victimizers.

At the core of KURONEKO is the bittersweet story of a doomed family caught between their heart’s desire and damnation. Yone, Shige, and Hachi want nothing more than to be reunited and for things to go back to the way they were but realize that it’s too late. If Hachi doesn’t slay his mother and wife, Raiko will have him executed; if Yone and Shige don’t kill Hachi, than the demonic forces that restored them to life will drag them back to hell. It’s a dire situation where no one can do anything but lose and our central trio will try to put off the inevitable as long as possible and from there things will begin to spiral further and further downward until…well, Japanese horror films don’t have a reputation for ending happily, do they?

Of course, much of KURONEKO’s strength comes from just how beautiful a film it is. Compared to something like the lush imagery of Kobayashi’s KWAIDAN, KURONEKO is fairly stripped down, often to the point that much of the film’s sets resembles a stage in a Noh theater play. But don’t look at this as a limitation as Shindo creates a marvelously hushed, dream-like ambience through the use of minimalist sets, light and shadow. Shige’s first post-resurrection appearance is that of a woman dressed in white emerging from the darkness, the contrast of the brightness of her outfit against the backdrop giving her a rather unnerving phantasmal glow. Shindo also shows a deft hand at being able to switch between the more dream-like scenes and moments of grounded realism and keeping his audience off-balance by changing up the film’s pace and tone in unpredictable ways. Within the first half hour or so, we go from a completely wordless opening to a hallucinatory meeting between a samurai and the two women that comes to a grisly end. Just as we’ve settled into watching that scene play out over and over with the two women’s other victims, we’re suddenly dropped into a corpse-strewn battle field with Hachi trying his best not end up rust on the club of the only other survivor of this gruesome skirmish. Then it’s not too long before the film goes through a touching and genuinely erotic interlude as Hachi and Shige spend their last days together before everything concludes with a chillingly surreal face off between Hachi and his mother’s demonic self in a temple. This is all ably supported by the film’s talented cast. Nakamura and Sato are, of course, fantastic as the conflicted Hachi and oafish Raiko, but it’s Otawa and Taichi who really shine here. Taichi’s Shige manages to give off an air of serene beauty and vulnerability even as she’s tearing some poor goon’s throat out and Otawa is just a fierce, dominating presence all around. Otawa – a frequent collaborator with Shindo who would eventually marry him – got her start as member of a famous all-woman theater troupe and even gets to show off some of the skills she learned from it, performing theatrical dances as Shige goes to work on seducing and killing their latest victim.

KURONEKO is actually one of Shindo’s lesser known films; which I’ll admit doesn’t quite compute with me because it’s the first of his that I’ve heard of and the first film of his that I’ve seen. Upon release it was viewed as something of a throwback, having more in common with earlier, more understated period films and never made much of an impact outside of its home country, as inter-committee struggles kept it from being shown as Cannes and it saw only a brief release in the U.S. Thankfully, time has seemed to turn things in its favor and the film is getting more of the recognition it deserves. Simply put, if you’re looking for a movie that succeed as both a pointed social commentary and as a campfire story, you’d be wrong to pass up this one.

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