Friday, July 19, 2013

Kuroneko (1968)

A woman and her daughter-in-law are ravaged, brutalized and killed by a gang of hungry, lost samurai in a war-torn feudal Japan. They steal and eat their food, coldly burn down the house with their bodies inside, the signs of which are first seen as smoke emanating from it, which looks almost fog-like. All this happens in the first ten, silent, dialog-free minutes of the film, one of the most shocking beginnings to ever grace celluloid.

The women return as vengeful ghosts, part human, part black cats, and unleash deadly revenge, not only on their perpetrators but the entire samurai clan by bringing in a prey each night, getting him drunk, seducing him and later feasting on his blood!

An all too familiar story, perhaps heard many a times, in not just Japanese folklore but elsewhere as well. A classic ghost story, is mostly a classic ghost revenge story and usually it is about a woman scorned, isn't it? But we have Kaneto Shindo at the helm and hence any skepticism regarding the done-to-death B-horror plot synopsis is allayed and expectations are automatically raised, after his masterful "Onibaba" (1964) that knocked the ball right out of the park with its fabulous retelling of an old Shin Buddhist parable.

In "Kuroneko" (1968) the story is not as unique as in "Onibaba", thanks to the countless film and TV show versions that adapted the same tale and recycled it every which way. So in "Kuroneko", don't be surprised to find familiar material full of revenge, werewolves (or werecats, in this case, to be more specific!), ghosts, seduction and vampirism. But then what makes "Kuroneko" so different if at all? Plenty!

For one, it has the 1960s Japanese New Wave aesthetics. It was the golden period of Japanese cinema when some rebellious filmmakers broke free from conventional studio shackles and experimented away with radically new ideas in storytelling and filmmaking devices. The result was a great number of top quality films that fully realized their directors' vision. This film comes from Kaneto Shindo's own production company as well. Like Hiroshi Teshigahara, Shindo has his distinct visual style. All that made "Onibaba" so visually enthralling is there in "Kuroneko". Filmed in wide-screen black and white, chiaroscuro lighting effects with graceful and gliding camerawork make "Kuroneko" one of the most stylistically polished films of the time dealing with a horror story such as this. 

The blood and creature makeup effects are all there, and quite well accomplished at that, without coming off as shoddy or fake, a monumental achievement considering it was made a time when modern devices to pull off such effects were rare. Shindo also makes use of the Chūnori technique predominantly a part of the Kabuki theatre, which allows the ghosts to do back flips and get pulled up in the air right through the roof by means of invisible wire! The Taiko drum and low melancholic string score amidst long, uncomfortable moments of silence broken only slightly by a cat's meow, the fog effects in an empty house beyond the moonlit bamboo grove render a deliciously eerie atmosphere that modern horror filmmakers struggle to achieve in their works.

It is not just on the technical front that the film succeeds. Amidst all the (albeit in minor doses) body horror, with hairy limbs, slanted eyebrows, a woman's pony tail that waggles like a cat's tail, and supernatural elements such as evil gods and monsters, there is plenty of humanistic, compassionate drama at its heart.  Kaneto Shindo's tale doesn't end only with revenge and killings. In a twist of fate, the woman's son Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) comes back from war three years after the killing of the women, as a valiant warrior who is taken in by the local warlord Raiko (Kei Sato) and is entrusted with the responsibility of tracking down the monster that is killing and feeding off the blood of the samurai. This is where the story takes a dramatically different route and shifts from a tale of horror to a tale of grief, loss, and longing. 

There is a poetic beauty in those scenes when the tearful mother Yone (Nobuko Otowa) performs a silent dance as her daughter-in-law's ghost makes love to her son who has returned a fine man. There is a delicate grace and sensuality to the love scenes. An otherworldly joy of immense satisfaction is seen on Shige's (Kiwako Taichi) face as she clutches her husband tightly in a warm embrace after years of separation. It is a moment that is heartwarming as well as heartbreaking, for the viewer knows that the separation is not merely bodily, but worldly too, for the couple now exist in different worlds. Their chemistry and a subsequent speech by Raiko highlight the underlying subtext about inherent class differences, of the respectable nobility, the weak farmers and finally the honour of the samurai.

The ever-bankable Kei Sato, the young Nakamura Kichiemon and the women Kiwako Taichi and especially Nobuko Otowa deliver with solid performances that range from restrained to highly theatrical and Kaneto Shindo holds his grip firm on a steady pace all throughout the narrative except in some portions where it slackens. Some startling revelations and bits that follow come across as slightly clumsy and unconvincing even in the film's supernatural universe, compared to the quality control exercised in the rest of the film. Nevertheless, the iconic image of the black cat's limb in the woman's mouth quickly brings things back on track and cements Kaneto Shindo's status as one of the most talented filmmakers to have happened to Japanese cinema, his humungous filmography being relegated to obscurity, notwithstanding.

Score: 9/10

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