Kuroneko (Criterion) (Blu-Ray)
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In this poetic and atmospheric horror fable, set in a village in war-torn medieval Japan, a malevolent spirit has been ripping out the throats of itinerant samurai. When a military hero is sent to dispatch the unseen force, he finds that he must struggle with his own personal demons as well. From Kaneto Shindo, director of the terror classic Onibaba, Kuroneko (Black Cat) is a spectacularly eerie twilight tale with a shocking feminist angle, evoked through ghostly special effects and exquisite cinematography.
SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES • New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition • Video interview with director Kaneto Shindo from the Directors Guild of Japan • New video interview with critic Tadao Sato • Theatrical trailer • New and improved English subtitle translation • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Maitland McDonagh and an excerpt from film scholar Joan Mellen’s 1972 interview with Shindo
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What makes it so memorable?
First of all, it offers strong characters with powerful, contradictory emotional drives. Torn between family, honor, religious & social demands, they recognize the trap they're in, one determined by outside forces they've internalized. Yet they're unable to resolve those contradictions & save themselves. This sense of the inexorable only grows stronger as the story progresses.
So our young farmer-turned-samurai is faced with the bloodthirsty ghosts of his wife & mother, who have vowed to destroy all samurai, but retain enough of their memories & humanity to want to spare him. For his part, he relishes his rise in social status, yet desperately wants to be reunited with his wife & mother, partly out of guilt for not being there to save them.
Then there's the cinematography & the bold direction of Kaneto Shindo, making superb use of dense masses of shadow & sudden pools of unearthly light. There's a minimum of gore & gratuitous shock; instead, the emphasis is on atmosphere & tension, brought to a slow & almost unbearable boil. It has a dreamlike quality, one that can turn from haunted beauty to outright nightmare in an instant. In a way, I'm reminded of Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" -- there's the same sense of some ancient folk tale retold in strangely intimate terms -- but where Cocteau properly brings his film to a deserved fairy tale conclusion, Shindo ventures into darker & more ambiguous territory.
As with his previous "Onibaba" (which is the perfect companion to "Kuroneko"), Shindo's sympathies are with the women. For all their visual beauty, his films don't glamorize the samurai, or men in general. His concern is more with those who have to suffer the consequences of living in a world shaped by masculine hungers; thus even his historical films speak eloquently to the present.
Most highly recommended!
Update: I purchased the Blu-Ray version when the price dropped to $19.99. Worth every penny!
But perhaps the most important lesson here is: watch this film! Enjoy it for the amazing thrill ride that it is. Kaneto Shindo directs this amazing piece of Japanese cinematic gold. He is like the Japanese Tarantino, he never had any official training, just a love for films. He actually read one of these 44 (or so) volume modern stage collections that took him over a year to finish. Amazingly, he is one of very few people to actually have completed each and every volume in such short time. But that is a testament to his style and character. He learned for years under Mizoguchi, and looked up to the old master quite a bit. Though he admits in documentaries and interviews (including one in this collection) that he and Mizoguchi disagreed about a lot of things, the old master was a major influence in Shindo's film life. To sum it up: Mizoguchi said 'a flower cannot act' but Shindo says a flower can actually act, if one takes the time to notice.
The film is set in feudal Japan. Enter starving deserters. Starving deserters see a house. House has food and women. Deserters take what they want and burn the house and the women. Enter black cat. Begin creepy ghost story.
Without delving too much into the film and giving anything away, the two deceased women are possessed by a vengeful cat spirit. They seem to retain some of their memories from when they were alive, but they form a pact with the evil underworld gods to kill and drink the blood of any samurai that cross the Rajomon gate.
First of all, the film is gorgeous. Simply jaw dropping beautiful. It has some to do with the amazing transfer and restoration of Criterion (though most late 60s films need less restoration than those pre 1960s. But what really shines is the use of set and amazing lighting effects by Shindo and his amazingly talented crew. Every detail is raked over with a fine tooth comb. There is nothing extra or flabby about this film. Every set, every scene, every line is important. Shindo once spoke of Ozu and his respect for his films, and this kind of nitpicking directing shows. Though perhaps he was not quite as neurotic as Orson Wells!
The film is a haunting ghost story, based on Noh and Kabuki theater; but at it's core it is a love story and a tale of loyalty and also of revenge. The acting is pretty amazing. Raiko's mustache could have a career all it's own as a porn star! But we really see some terrific acting once Kichiemon Nakamura (Gintoki) enters the film.
It's a creepy yet not scary film that has a lot of depth and complexity. It teaches us those important life lessons: never trust vengeful spirits, never escort 'lost' young ladies home in the middle of the night, don't go into creepy and remote villas with said 'lost' girls... or just don't become a samurai and it'll be all good. But the old saying, "never cross paths with a black cat" doesn't apply here. This is one black cat that deserves a part of any film fan's collection.
PS. If you actually do have a black cat as a pet (I do), please be aware that said cat might take pleasure in suddenly appearing sitting on the arm of the couch next to you and startle the #*@^ out of you.