In Kaneto Shindô’s 1968 Kuroneko (“Black Cat”), a beguiling supernatural horror-romance that doesn’t seem to belong to either genre, the spirit world not only co-exists with the material world, but is literally carved into it, like a secret portal or booby trap. Set in a feudal Japan where samurai are more scourge than savior to the peasant class, the film opens with a harrowing scene of weary warriors invading a country home, raping and murdering the two women inside, and burning it to the ground. When the victims return as vengeful spirits, they reside in a fog-shrouded netherworld in the bamboo forest and spend their days luring samurai into their realm, where they seduce them and tear savagely into their necks like jungle cats. In broad strokes, the premise resembles the 1964 Japanese classic Woman In The Dunes and Shindô’s own Onibaba from the same year: deadly women, wayward men, a dominant natural setting, psychosexual themes. Yet Kuroneko develops into a heightened romantic tragedy that takes on a different tone than its predecessors.
With the man of the house off fighting a war, Nobuko Otowa and her daughter-in-law, Kiwako Taichi, are left vulnerable to an assault by marauding samurai. Presaged by the appearance of a black cat, their mission of vengeance doubles as a curse: One by one, they get to dispatch the men who violated them, but they’re doomed to haunt the forest forever. In an ironic turn, the intrepid samurai (Kichiemon Nakamura) tasked with slaying the “monsters” happens to be Otowa’s son and Taichi’s husband, altering their respective plans in a way that’s destructive and tragic for all involved. From there, the tone shifts, and suddenly a spirit realm once suffused with horror and death becomes a place for a long-separated couple to reacquaint themselves, however briefly.
Photographed in gleaming, B&W Tohoscope, Kuroneko has an atmosphere similar to Japanese ghost stories like Kwaidan, but the tone keeps shifting around, moving from violent horror to erotic fantasy to full-blown melodrama. Taking the form of a folktale, the film curses revenge and the violence that perpetuates it, and though the rules of its world sometimes seem laid out on the fly, it’s strikingly beautiful and mysterious. With Kuroneko, Shindô obscures the thin line separating the dead from the living—through which spirits, sin, and passion move freely.
Key features: An hourlong archived interview with Shindô from the Directors’ Guild Of Japan is a little dry, but a 15-minute session with film critic Tadao Sato, shot for this edition, provides some vital context.