In recent years, the Far East (particularly Japan and South Korea) has provided Western audiences with a previously-untapped wealth of folklore, culture and story-telling which quickly formed the bedrock of a new horror genre. Rue Morgue magazine coined the term ‘J-horror’: whatever you want to call it though, the opening of these floodgates meant that what was at first fresh and interesting soon became rather stale and formulaic, at least in part because we saw so much of it so quickly. But then, we were seeing a lot of second-rate derivative material – no film industry is immune to lazy opportunism – and we shouldn’t forget that when Far Eastern horror is good, it’s very good. Its popularity has probably also helped us gain access to otherwise-unknown gems such as Kaneto Shindô’s Kuroneko, a subtle and atmospheric ghost story.
The film takes place in the troubled Sengoku period in Japan’s history: during this time the country was in a constant state of flux and conflict, with rival daimyo (barons) seeking to extend their influence over one another. This led to a serious need for samurai, and young men – like Gintoki (Kitchiemon Nakamura) – being forcibly removed from their homes to go and fight. When Gitoki is taken, it leaves his mother Yone and his young wife Shige unprotected and alone. The women (in an understated but powerful sequence) are then raped and killed by a group of samurai.
The women – dying in a state of anger and fear, which modern audiences might recognise as a plot motif from The Grudge (2002) – return as vengeful revenants which seem to have no direct equivalent in Western folklore. They’re phantoms, but they exhibit vampiric behaviour too as they fulfil the conditions of their eternal life: they must kill samurai, and they do it by charming, seducing – and then draining the blood from their bodies. However, when Gintoki returns from war as a fully-fledged samurai, the female creatures reveal that they have human consciences too. They still love him, but he now belongs to a social class they exist to destroy. Gintoki himself has been charged by his daimyo with ridding the town of the murderous spirits who are murdering his best men. An encounter is therefore inevitable…
This is an immensely artistic piece of cinema, with atmosphere in abundance. From the archaic costumes and interiors (which reminded me in places of kabuki theatre) to the use of shadow, pitch-black darkness and transparent/opaque fabrics, this is a film in which every scene looks carefully constructed and balanced. The fact that it’s shot in black and white adds a starkness to the appearance of the film which works very well. The women themselves balance beauty and creepiness, appearing like demure dolls out of the groves but communicating purpose and menace with a simple look. There’s a depth to these characters too because they are ambiguous; despite being dangerous, they retain their human feelings and remind each other that they are obliged to act the way they do by a ‘contract’, something which causes Shige in particular great pain. Yet, they will defend themselves if challenged with a display of their supernatural power, and they dispatch samurai savagely. These aren’t simply two-dimensional villains. The arrival of Gintoki renders things more problematic for them, and drives the film towards a tragic conclusion.
Ultimately, this is what I found so affecting about Kuroneko: although this is a fantastical, theatrical piece of cinema, at its heart it’s a deeply sad story of war, alienation and loss. The fact of its being a supernatural yarn never detracts from that. Behind the – genuinely creepy – haunting there is context. With its blend of harsh imagery and tone with real aesthetic brilliance, I’ve never quite seen a film like Kuroneko. I will definitely be seeking out Onibaba, a film by the same director.