The latest welcome addition to the Masters of Cinema’s growing Kaneto Shindô catalogue, the cult Japanese director’s 1968 film Kuroneko (Yabu no naka no kuroneko) feels like the near-perfect partner piece to his demonic earlier effort, Onibaba. Celebrating both pictures’ atmospheric, effortlessly sensual and often terrifying feudal Japan-set ghostly narratives, the restoration and ongoing preservation of these two mini masterworks has rightly helped the late Shindô to earn the kind of acclaim and reverence previously reserved for iconic figureheads such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujirō Ozu.
Loosely based on the Japanese folktale The Cat’s Return, Kuroneko begins with the brutal rape and murder of a poverty-stricken mother and daughter-in-law (Nobuko Otowa and Kiwako Taichi) at the cruel hands of a pillaging band of low-life samurai. Brought back from the dead as vengeful, vampiric cat spirits, the unholy duo take it upon themselves to prey on wayward soldiers trespassing across their accursed place of rest. That is until a war-hardened young ronin, Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) is recruited to end the blood-thirsty sirens’ reign of terror by a powerful local warlord. To complicate matters, however, it transpires that Gintoki may have more in common with these simple former-peasants than initially meets the eye.
As with Onibaba, in Kuroneko once again chooses not to revere the figure of the samurai, more often than not portraying them as vile, feckless opportunists. These are not the brave, honourable warriors of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, but petty street thugs with katana, banding together to form merciless roving death squads. The unfortunate victims of one such posse, our ravaged innocents’ transformation from bamboo grove-dwelling peasants into vengeful yōkai (a clear pre-cursor to Tim Burton’s Catwoman in 1992 Caped Crusader outing Batman Returns) is as chilling as it is miraculous. Make-up, costume, sound design and wire-work all help to accentuate the effects of this perverse metamorphosis, as Yone and Shige go about their ghoulish business with predatory aplomb.
Passions don’t perhaps run as high here as they do in Onibaba, with Kuroneko an altogether cooler, calmer, more contemplative beast than the former’s mask-wearing shenanigans. What is clear, however, is that Shindô seems to have reached the mythical zenith of his technical prowess, his majestic use of wire-work perfectly complemented by regular DoP Kiyomi Kuroda’s crisp, nocturnal cinematography. Special praise should also be reserved for Hikaru Hayashi’s endlessly unsettling score, an organic blend of seemingly discordant percussion and eerie gusts of woodwind that feels as much a part of the bamboo grove as the malevolent phantoms that lurk within.