Kuroneko – 藪の中の黒猫 Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko – is a 1968 Japanese horror film directed by Kaneto Shindo. The English title translates as “Black Cat”. (The Japanese title translates as “Black cat in a [bamboo] grove”.)
A mother, Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi) – who are raped and murdered by a bad of samurai soldiers who then burn their home to the ground. In their dying moments, the women make a pact with the spirit world and are brought back to life as vengeful cat demons.
The younger of the two appears at the entrance to a bamboo grove to seduce passing samurai into accompanying her home. After plying them with sake, she then savagely murders them, tearing out their throats with her teeth as they make love.
Eventually, after several bodies are found, a local warlord decides enough is enough, and despatches his best warrior to kill the spirits. However, the samurai in question turns out to be Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) the son and husband of the murdered women and so begins a conflict on both sides.
The wife cannot bring herself to kill her husband, just as he cannot kill his wife and mother – but a broken pact with the underworld sees the younger woman banished to Hell after spending seven nights with him. Alone, the older woman carries on with the killing, forcing a confrontation between the two…
Shot in crisp, moody black and white and set in feudal, war torn Japan, this is a more overt ghost story than Onibaba. A creepy, atmospheric study love, death and duty – both the son and the mother are bound by promises made, no matter what they feel for each other – Kuroneko is pretty remarkable.
The film uses a lot of theatrical techniques, with characters appearing from shadows thanks to stage lighting and the use of kabuki style dramatics, with the ghostly characters almost gliding with silent footsteps and scenes of Otawa dancing in traditional kabuki style; yet it remains extremely cinematic.
The bamboo grove is dark, brooding and sinister and the scenes of the samurai being taken to their doom are full of dread and darkness. The seduction scenes are not as frank in terms of nudity as Onibaba, yet have a definite eroticism nevertheless, while the moments of violence and horror are suitably graphic.
The film’s final scenes, with the cat demon mother returning to reclaim her severed limb (the result of a previous battle with her son), are unsettling and moody and the conflict between mother and son sees some impressive early wire work.
Also worth a mention is Hikaru Hayashi’s remarkable score, that is astonishing. At times, it sounds remarkably similar to Jerry Goldsmith’s later Planet of the Apes soundtrack, full of discordant percussion and strange, unsettling sounds. It’s a score certain cranks up the tension and the sense of tragedy at the heart of the film.
Beautifully shot by Kiyomi Kuroda, Kuroneko proves to be very impressive. Not as startling as Onibaba, perhaps, or as haunting as Ugestu Monogatari, but nevertheless essential viewing for fans of classic Japanese horror.
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA
“One could even spend time discussing the film as an examination of class in feudal Japan. But the real pleasure of Kuroneko is watching ghosts that can gracefully do slow motion leaps in the air, backward somersaults, and lunge at the necks of their victims.” Coffee Coffee and More Coffee