"Is that a cat?"
"One of the strays."
You may have seen one of those "Grudge" movies in the past, either from Japan or one of its American remake-counterpart. For those not familiar, her is a summary via wikipedia: "The Grudge describes a curse that is born when someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage or extreme sorrow. The curse gathers in the place where that person died. Those who encounter this murderous supernatural force die and the curse is reborn repeatedly, passed from victim to victim in an endless, growing chain of horror."
So yeah: ghosts, haunting, vengeance, check, check, double check. What sets apart at least the beginning of Kuroneko (or Black Cat as it's easily translated as) from other Grudge movies- hell, a lot of other movies period- is how frank and perfect the visual storytelling is. Not a word is spoken in the first five minute scene of the picture, but it holds real raw, disturbing power at the horror possible in man. The shot opens as the one right here:
And out of the forest come a big group of men. At first they look like bandits, and they come trudging along through the grasses to the home set up on the left side of the screen. They enter inside without any invitation. Why bother? The women- one older than the other- look and know what is to come, though this doesn't take away from any of the horror that they feel knowing what's to come. The men take the food (all of it actually), rape the women, and leave them for dead in the hut, completely engulfed in flames... but then, as if out of that scene in Batman Returns, only somehow creepier, they become 'reborn' in the form of two black cats. They nibble a little at the bodies, get their essence down, and get to work on what needs to be done: killin' samurai.
This opening is shot, acted and edited (without any musical score) to a completely chilling effect. I'm reminded of I Spit on Your Grave, only that used rape and revenge as a really cheap, stupid and poorly executed tool, while Shindo is anything but. His opening to the film is cold and brutal, but it is completely in and of itself human for all of the characters involved. There's a great moment where as the women are being raped the shots stay on the faces of the other men. They're not overly excited, they just look on in a kind of daze, sweat beating down, rice all around the sides of their mouths. Maybe they're waiting a turn, maybe not. The whole opening carries a flavor like a dream, or, as it's probably intended, a super-dark fairy tale (don't forget, for example, Little Red Riding Hood and the X-rated portion where the wolf actually *eats* the grandmother).
So after this opening, how does the rest of the film live up? For a while, that is the first half hour or so, pretty darn good. We see the female-feline process at work, as they lure in samurai - maybe they were the ones who did the rape, probably not - into their lair, fill them up with sake, float in and out of rooms, and the younger woman seduces the men and proceeds to rip right into their necks and drink their blood. This happens to so many samurai that the lead-samurai man has no choice but to bring in some *good* samurai to try and hunt whatever this ghost is (at first it's thought of as one). As it turns out the very man that is called in on the mission- a vicious killer who we see in a scene in a grassy field take out an opponent with cunning and (for us) suspense and horror at the other man's fate- happens to also be the man who used to live at home, three years before, with a mother and wife.... and they do look awfully familiar, don't they?
At a certain point, it becomes a little more routine in its plotting. We know that there can be no real way that the honorable samurai can neglect his task, but, gosh-darnit, she so does look like his wife, don't she? There are plenty of tender love-making scenes that should go without saying the suspension of disbelief to make love to a ghost-cat-woman (at the least Shindo does give a tender soft-eroticism to the scenes, however they do ultimately drag the narrative). It's when it comes time to buckle down and do his task that things get trickier and, thankfully, more and more rooted in the atmospheric 'holy hell' that the samurai has gotten himself in to.
|Tell me, is that a human-cat hybrid arm or are you just happy to see me?|
All the while the film is a feast for the eyes, if one is looking for a dark tale of the supernatural that uses all practical effects. By this I should note that nothing ever looks "fake". There are scenes of gore that are quite vicious, or more-so than I expected for the period (watch out for your neck!) And Shindo gets plenty of fantastical moments for his actresses to float, fly, jump, cartwheel, and do all kinds of cat-like things in the air, in the sky, in cramped rooms. There are moments where one forgets the women are cats, or even dead, until it's reminded, sometimes in melodramatic fashion. Ultimately, there is a sparse poetry to the horror that is going on, and it's more mournful for the disarray that the pig-headed we-can-do-no-wrong samurai have done to farmers and their families that is meant as the main message here.
This isn't to say that Shindo thinks *all* samurai are bad. Just, naturally, the ones that are in this film who are vain and proud and ultra-violent, leading a kind of hell-bound charge that all samurai must die. It's meant to give chills more than outright fright. This isn't for the kind of Grudge crowd that rushed in droves for the Sarah Michelle Gellar claptrap from 2004. Quite the opposite, it's for people who just love a good ghost story; if boiled down to its essentials Shindo has a story that could be told around the campfire. As it is he's crafted a flawed masterpiece that burns a little slow, and pays off for the patient viewer with some dazzling set-pieces. And of course that opening.