Monday, 31 October 2011
Starring: Kichiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, Kei Satô, Kiwako Taichi
By Alan Bacchus
Delicious Gothic atmosphere from the fog-filled and misty bamboo forests is the star of this loopy and often haunting Japanese ghost story of female revenge against malicious Samurai soldiers.
It’s the Senguko period in Japan, that is the 17th century when most other Japanese Samurai films are set, and like most places in times of war, men go off to fight and women stay home for sometimes years waiting for their husbands to return. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. For Gintoki it’s been three years since her husband was literally snatched from their house leaving her and her mother-in-law, Yone, home alone. We’re exposed to a particularly brutal opening, which has a rogue band of soldiers wandering through Gintoki’s farm stopping for some water. It’s an innocent visit at first, but quickly turns into a heinous rape and murder of the two women and the burning of their home.
But with the help of a wandering black cat the women are reincarnated as ghosts to exact revenge on their assailants. Now the women ply the lands of the neighbouring forests as sirens of sorts seducing wandering Samurai into their home for room, board, sex and then vicious, blood curdling, vengeful murder. But when Gintoki’s husband returns, she finds herself at odds with her Faustian bargain. She must either kill her husband, who as a Samurai is now her sworn enemy, or lose her ghostly abilities and cross back over into the land of the dead.
Billed as a ‘horror film’ this picture is less a shocker than a brooding and existential psychological study. Shindo creates a haunting atmospheric feeling during the sirens' frequent seduction sequences. The crisp and contrasting black and white cinematography is gorgeous – jet black frames delicately populated with splashes of light, creating a feeling of eerie Gothic strangeness.
This film was made in 1968, and there’s a strong psychedelic tone to the staging of the film’s key sequences. Gintoki’s love scenes are tastefully choreographed, covered up skin appropriately with flowing drapes and such, but Shindo sure teases us with artistic silhouettes of Gintoki’s supple nude body.
The attacks on the men are vicious and perhaps speak to a feminist movement in the world zeitgeist at the time. But the emotional core of the film arrives in the third act when Gintoki’s husband learns the truth of his wife’s apparitions. A forlorn and tragic love story emerges from the Gothic horror.
Unfortunately the film is also bogged down by a stiffness in performance that is common with these types of period Japanese films. The extreme reactions and emotions of the characters are far from the naturalism we usually expect from Western films. But this is a purposeful convention of Japanese cinema – take it or leave it.
Kuroneko is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.