It’s hard out there for a ghost. But it’s even harder for a soldier being seduced by a ghost. This very familiar (if undeniably uber-specific) story trope has informed some of the best Japanese horror movies of all time.
Foremost is Kenji Mizoguchi’s haunting Ugetsu monogatari, which is often counted among the best movies ever made.
But threads of that folk tale are weaved in and throughout the lesser-known Kaneto Shindō’s two horror movies from the 1960s. His 1964 Onibaba is probably the more familiar to American audiences, thanks to its inclusion in the Criterion Collection. But his 1968 Kuroneko (Black Cat) is poised to emerge as its rightful peer.
The movie shows the devastation that stems from the rape and murder of Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and her son’s wife Shige (Kiwako Taichi) after they are left alone during Japan’s violent Sengoku period. After they are deflowered and destroyed by a band of military misfits, their spirits persist, ensnaring soldiers left and right to wreak vengeance on … well, men in general.
As my colleague Joseph Jon Lanthier wrote in Slant Magazine: “Onibaba is Noh, staged with talismanic face wear, head-choking camera angles, and tall, asphyxiating ferns. Kuroneko is Kabuki, characterized by wide, blackened spaces, narrow, wooden paths, and airborne swordfights. In the former, magic is viewed with intimidated skepticism; in the latter, it’s confidently embraced at face value.”
Shindō’s sexual politics aren’t quite as easy to endorse as those of Mizoguchi, who (at least cinematically speaking) loved women like almost no other director. But with Onibaba and Kuroneko, he earns his position as one of the great visionaries of Japan in the ’60s, an era still still ripe for discovery.
Kuroneko plays for one week at the Uptown starting tonight. Here’s the original Japanese trailer for the film. As you can see, it wants not for wild imagery.