Sunday, September 27, 2015

Kuroneko [dir. Kaneto Shindo]

Director Kaneto Shindo is a marvel of vivacity at the very least. He died after completing a century, and in a film-making career that began in 1951, was releasing films up to 2 years before his demise. With films like The Naked Island, Children of Hiroshima, Onibaba etc and his documentary on fellow director Kenji Mizoguchi, Shindo has cemented his reputation as one of Japanese cinema's prime names.

Kuroneko aka Black Cat (1968) is a spiritual successor to 1964's Onibaba. Both of them deal with peasant women characters (woman and daughter-in-law) and their murderous interactions with Samurai. Unlike in the films of Akira Kurosawa or Masaki Kobayashi, the Samurai of Shindo's film have no glow of honor or nobility. They are rapacious bastards who exploit the peasantry and are in turn murdered by them. While the motive for murder in Onibaba was survival (the women trade the armor and weapons they get from murdering wounded samurai), here it is revenge (they are the vengeful spirits of peasants raped and killed by soldiers, now sworn to kill and drink the blood of passing samurai). The twist comes when a Samurai sent to tackle the murders of his comrades turns out to be the son/husband of the pair that had been forcibly conscripted and then made his name as a warrior. Whether the spirits of the women will still carry out their vow of vengeance against Samurai, or whether the warrior is able to overcome them forms the rest of the film's narrative.

Kuroneko is brilliantly framed. The scenes set in the house of the spirit women have a deliberate theatricality in terms of the set design, use of props and effects, the erotic ballet like movements of the characters - it is a reflection of the illusion created by the spirits to trap their Samurai victims. The lighting and camera movements are top-notch generating a solid atmosphere. But compared to Onibaba, the narrative feels less visceral and affecting, the repetitive depiction of the seduction and/or killing of Samurai although it is designed to establish a pattern, begins to get tiresome after a while. Really this feels like a short movie stretched out in running time. It is most badly affected in the last act which falls into the "Character in horror film does incredibly stupid things" trap. It's definitely worth watching once, but not more than that for me.

In presentation, Criterion's blu-ray (borrowed from a friend) is superb, with HD visuals that nicely complement Eureka/MoC's fabulous blu-ray of Onibaba. The image has terrific contrast and lovely texture. The mono sound effective conveys dialog and the moody score. Extras are few but significant - there's a 30-min video essay on Kuroneko by critic Tadao Sato and there's a really nice hour-long interview with Kaneto Shindo (shot in 1998) in which he goes over his entire film-making career till that point.

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