Along with 1964’s Onibaba, Kuroneko (1968) is one of two horror films directed by Kaneto Shindō in the mid-1960s. Although they were the prolific director’s only forays into horror, both are now considered to be genre classics. Like its predecessor, Kuroneko recounts the tale of women struggling to survive by themselves during a period of chaos and civil war. Since her husband was dragged off to join a samurai band three years earlier (at this point in Japanese history the samurai were essentially mercenaries, rather than the powerful hereditary caste they would later become), a wife and her mother-in-law have been left to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, the women are found by another gang of samurai who rape them, steal their food and leave them for dead. When we next see them, the women have become vengeful spirits, luring stray samurai into their house with offers of alcohol, comfort and sex, only to tear out their victims’ throats and drink their blood. After a number of similar deaths, a local samurai leader sends one of his bravest men to track down the killers. Unbeknown to the women, the samurai sent is the same husband and son taken away from them three years before.
Kuroneko is probably the most famous example of the bakeneko (also known as a kaibyō) or ‘ghost cat’ story), one of the more popular variations on the standard kaidan, or ghost story. According to folklore, a cat who drinks human blood can gain magical powers, including the ability to talk, to fly and to assume human form. In horror stories the bakeneko is often a pet whose master is murdered; when the cat drinks its master’s blood, it also inherits their memories, including the identity of the murderer. As a bakeneko, the cat exacts revenge on the guilty party, usually by infiltrating their home and killing off – and consuming – the entire household. In Kuroneko the spirits of the murdered woman and her mother-in-law have become bakeneko, allowing them to continue taking revenge on the samurai they blame for their deaths. Although less well-known in the West, ghost-cat films were very popular in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s, attracting a number of key directors, including Nobuo Nakagawa, Kenji Misumi, Tokuzō Tanaka and Teruo Ishii.
Unlike in the majority of bakeneko films, in Kuroneko Shindō is less interested in plotting out the creatures’ revenge than in following the samurai’s relationship to his dead wife and mother, and underlining the political and social changes taking place, in particular the rise of the samurai class. With the exception of the hero, the samurai in Kuroneko are nothing more than thugs whose primary interests lie in money, women and alcohol. The men that the women lure back to their house are finely dressed and dignified, but after a few bowls of sake, they become little different to the ragged crowd who raped and murdered the women. The samurai’s leader describes his men as the nation’s heroes – a claim that might well have resonated with post-war Japanese audiences – but the majority of them seem to be peasants who found a way out of the punishing life of a farmer, mainly at the expense of their less fortunate neighbours.
The returning husband and father is different, however. For one thing, he’s quite willing to acknowledge that his deeds were motivated by nothing more than a survival instinct, while he’s far from the picture of nobility and battlefield glory that the other samurai believe themselves to be. In reality, he simply wants to find his wife and mother, and when he does find them his urge to spend time with the women overrides any sense of duty he might be feeling from his new-found samurai status. These scenes are reminiscent of similar moments in the various versions of another traditional Japanese ghost story, the kaidan botan dōrō, ‘the ghost story of peony lanterns’, in which a man continues to visit a ghostly woman he has fallen in love with, even though he knows she will eventually kill him. It also prefigures Nobuhiko Obayashi’s award-winning 1988 version of the story, Ijintachi to no Natsu (The Discarnates), with a businessman electing to spend time with his deceased mother and father, despite the risk to his own life.
Beyond the political concerns, Kuroneko works exceptionally well as a ghost story, not least because of the sense of the tragic and bittersweet that colours many similar Japanese tales. For much of its running time the film is an exercise in restraint, creating a tangible atmosphere of dread and unease without resorting to unnecessary shock tactics. Shindé has a fine eye for the grotesque and eye-catching, with one of Kuroneko’s key images – a close-up shot of one of the ghosts with its own severed paw between its teeth – gracing the cover of almost every home video release of the film. The rapid transformation of the hero from half-naked, filthy creature (bearing a severed head!) to dignified, clean-shaven and impeccably dressed aristocrat is another memorable sequence. Like most Japanese horror films of the period, Kuroneko unfolds at a stately pace, but it’s rewarding viewing, and one that will stay with the audience long after it reaches its inevitable climax.
Watch the original theatrical trailer: