Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kuroneko (1968)

At some point in my movie viewing, I happened upon a clip from an old Japanese movie. A samurai is standing near a small body of water when a bloody female corpse appears. Perhaps this clip was part of a documentary on horror or Japanese cinema. I remember someone recounting the nature of ghosts in Japanese culture versus that of those in the West. In American films, a ghost will seek to harm you and may even kill you. Japanese ghosts, though frightening, do not typically attack the individual they are haunting. Rather they appear as a reminder of a past injustice. I have wanted to see this elusive movie ever since. I don't even recall that the title was ever translated, but there was one word that stuck out: Kuroneko. Black cat.

Imagine my utter joy when I discovered a movie titled KURONEKO was available for streaming. I was also elated when I learned that it was directed by Kaneto Shindo, who helmed the excellent ONIBABA. I wasted no time in beginning the movie. Right away I was suspicious that I was not watching the elusive movie I had for years been searching for in my distracted lazy way. KURONEKO is in black and white and the clip of the samurai near the body of water I remembered as being in color. By the end of my viewing, no such scene appeared. It wasn't a total loss, or even a loss at all. KURONEKO is a chilling little ghost story.

I've got to assume that KURONEKO is an exception to the rules of Japanese folklore. The mother and daughter pair of ghosts are certainly out to do more than remind samurai of the wrong they have been dealt. They are much happier when they are seducing these unsuspecting swordsman and tearing out their throats.

Gintoki, a powerful samurai warrior returning from a prolonged battle, is given the charge of killing the ghosts (apparently in Japanese culture, ghosts can be killed by physical means). Matters are complicated when Gintoki discovers that the duo are identical to his missing mother and wife.

There is a particularly effective scene toward the end. Gintoki has cloistered himself in a room for seven days in order to observe a ritual to ensure the demise of the ghost of his mother. On the sixth day, a voice comes from outside his locked door, trying to convince Gintoki to open the door and let her in. Gintoki has a rather long conversation with the voice, who claims to be there to perform a rite as ordered by the emperor and that Gintoki is bound by law to open the door. Of course, we know that no such order was given by the emporer and Gintoki is highly suspicious. But, in the case the voice is not lying, to refuse the emperor's word and not open the door would be met with a severe punishment.

KURONEKO is definitely worth a watch, particularly if you are a fan of Japanese cinema. The black and white is gorgeous and the camerawork is typical of that particular era in that the compositions are relentlessly stunning. Though this turned out not to be the movie I had been looking for, Shindo's direction did not disappoint in the slightest the high hopes I had.

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