Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: The Criterion Edition of ‘Kuroneko’ (1968)

From out of the wind-rustled bamboo grove surrounding a small cottage creeps a samurai horde. They storm the cottage, rape the mother (Nobuko Otowa) and daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) who live there, and burn the women alive. A black cat surveys the wreckage, crying. When it licks the women’s charred bodies, a demon spirit grants them renewed life in exchange for a vow of vengeance. The women are happy to oblige, as they must now drink the blood of all samurai who cross their vampiric path.

Director Kaneto Shindō (Onibaba) takes this seemingly simple premise into astoundingly complex territory with Kuroneko (Black Cat). Strategically placed peaks in the sound mix illustrate the animal brutality of both the samurai and their spectral victims. Subtle trick shots transform nature into a predatory entity stalking the samurai who fall into the specters’ trap. Sudden tempo shifts transform their feline attacks into shocking moments of horror. The rapes are so intrinsically horrific that Shindō doesn’t have to do much more than capture them and the leering faces of the onlookers. Most provocatively, his script does not spare these wronged women the dehumanizing effects of waging war. When they reunite with their abducted son and husband (Kichiemon Nakamura), they learn he has been decorated as a samurai during his absence and is now destined to be their next blood donor.

As all great antiwar films are, Kuroneko is harsh and profoundly tragic. It is also an eerie horror film and a dazzling showcase of cinematic magic tricks. Criterion augments this already rich film with an hour-long interview with Shindō from 1998 in which the director talks about his body of work, though oddly not Kuroneko. In another extra, film critic Tadao Sato rights that oversight with an insightful discussion of the film, focusing on its roots in kabuki theater and Shindō’s anti-samurai stance. Criterion presents the beautifully restored picture in its original ultra-wide 2:35:1 aspect ratio.

Get Kuroneko at Amazon.com on DVD or Blu-ray.
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