ANALYSIS: Phantom Felines – The Revenge of the Oppressed in KURONEKO (1968)

Trigger warning: this article discusses the film’s portrayal of rape.

As part of our examination of J-Horror, Johnny Restall looks back on an iconic landmark in Japanese folk cinema.

Japanese cinema has long been influenced by the country’s rich, distinctive folklore. Arguably the figures best-known to Western audiences are the ghostly yurei, particularly onryo – wronged souls, often female, with an unquenchable thirst for vengeance from beyond the grave, as showcased in the likes of Ring (1998). While yurei are generally human phantoms, the supernatural beings known as yokai seem able to possess almost any form, from animals to inanimate objects, as depicted in the Studio Ghibli classics Pom Poko (1994) and Spirited Away (2001). Bridging these two categories are creatures like the bakeneko: cats that can take human form, often to avenge their deceased owners. Uncanny felines actually constitute a diverse subgenre of their own in Japanese film, from the traditional Black Cat Mansion (1958) to the deranged House (1977). Perhaps the most poetic and rewarding of these is Kaneto Shindo’s Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko (1968), usually abbreviated to just Kuroneko, meaning ‘black cat.’

Director Kaneto Shindô had already established his horror credentials with the erotic and grisly international hit Onibaba (1964), a visceral, sweaty parable of sex and murder set in the war-torn Sengoku period (approximately the mid-15th to the early 17thcentury). At first glance, Kuroneko has much in common with the earlier film. The screenplay, written by Shindô, again mixes history and fable, while cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda and composer Hikaru Hayashi return, alongside actors Nobuko Otowa and Kei Sato. Yet the tone is strikingly different; where Onibaba is aggressive and largely realistic, Kuroneko is stately and dreamlike, drawing on theatrical effects and elegant visual tricks to add overtly supernatural intrigue to its subversive, socially-conscious tale of shape-shifting revenge.

The film opens with a long external shot of a modest wooden hut at the edge of a forest. Slowly, a bunch of scruffy samurai emerge from the undergrowth. Completely undermining the traditional image of their class as ascetic, noble warriors, they glut their thirst like animals at the small stream before bursting in on Yone (Otowa) and Shige (Kiwako Taichi), a peasant mother and her daughter-in-law. Wordlessly the grunting, bestial warriors overpower and rape the two women, while stuffing themselves with their victims’ food. The steady external shot then recurs as the soldiers leave while smoke starts to rise from the ransacked house, the static visuals and shocking quiet establishing that this atrocity has occurred without attracting official notice, and that justice will not be served by disinterested human authorities.

As the flames die down, the camera moves stealthily through the smouldering wreckage to uncover the women’s bodies. Their cat returns, licking at their fatal wounds in unnerving close-up as if to revive them (an eerie feline sequence surely referenced by Tim Burton for the resurrection of Selina Kyle as Catwoman in his non-more-gothic 1992 Batman Returns). Soon after, two mysterious ghostly women with more than a passing resemblance to Yone and Shige start luring lone samurai to their doom in the towering bamboo groves near the symbolically crumbling façade of Kyoto’s Rashomon gate.

Although the solitary samurai are more ornately costumed than the savages of the opening sequence, the film makes clear that they are just as venal and barbarous beneath their civilised veneer. The first victim eyes Shige with barely disguised lust and, soon drunk on Yone’s sake, reveals a distinctly ignoble, selfish philosophy: “Wars keep us in food and everything else. Everything is ours for the taking!” With Mikado (Hideo Kanze) cloistered and cowardly and the oppressed peasants caught between the warring factions, the opportunistic samurai are effectively the new ruling class. When Yone reveals that her own son was conscripted some years before, with no word of his whereabouts since, the insensitive warrior claims her offspring was lucky to be enlisted, boasting that he himself was a farmer before rising to his current exulted (if morally bankrupt) position. His entitlement and greed prove to be his undoing, however; lured into the forest by his hunger for pampering and sex, expecting the women to be as submissive as the handmaidens at the royal palace, he instead finds himself bested by the women’s ferocious, cunning appetite for revenge.

Mirroring the sudden rise in status of the samurai, Shige and Yone have abandoned their threadbare smocks and are now dressed and made-up in finery, helping them lure their vain victims to their forest home. Their flowing white kimonos shimmer under Kuroda’s extraordinary black and white photography, adding to the phantasmagorical effect of their movements as they silently glide across the ground or unexpectedly somersault through the air. Their modest wooden house is now a haunted mansion, the prowling camera abruptly drawing further corridors and chambers out of the inky darkness through stunning shifts in the lighting. It appears able to take over the woods at will, the bamboo trees growing through the floor to create a confusion of internal and external space, linking their unnatural powers with the earthly surroundings that represent their former lowly status, as well as their uncanny new relationship to the animal kingdom.

The film teases the viewer rather than explicitly reveal the ‘true face’ of the bakeneko women. A brief flash of unexpected fur, an unnervingly feline gesture, and the constant calling of unseen cats suffice to inform the viewer that they are no longer human (signs usually missed by their self-absorbed prey). Hayashi’s minimal music heightens the unsettling mood, the percussion scratching insistently like claws on a wall as high, shivering strings rise and fall, stalking the proceedings.

The choice of cat for their supernatural form works on many levels. As a humble, domestic animal, the cat echoes the position of both peasants and women in the traditional patriarchal society of the time, disempowered and disregarded by the ruling classes and exploited by ruthless opportunists like the samurai; one foolish warrior even gloats about the starving cats he has seen down by the river, being picked off by crows. Conversely, their predatory patience and sharp claws fit beautifully with the notion of disenfranchised souls haunting the forgotten bamboo groves, biding their time before striking back at their oppressors. Lastly, their place in traditional folklore marks them out as formidably cunning opponents, while their revered status in Japanese Buddhist and Shinto philosophy grants the women a spiritual righteousness to match their moral superiority over their victims. 

As the murders increase, the authorities are finally forced to take note. Chief samurai Raiko (Sato), a hypocritical and ambitious man, passes the task of catching the assassins to his naïve new general, Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), promoted more through blind luck than heroism. However, in a plot twist that powers the emotional heart of the story and complicates its established class and gender conflicts, the unsuspecting Gintoki is Yone’s enlisted son and Shige’s long-lost husband. He is now bound by honour to catch the mysterious murderers, while the women are supernaturally pledged to avenge their deaths on all samurai – including him. Neither side can escape their enforced position in the pervasive climate of violence, even as it infects their most sacrosanct bonds: the “evil gods” demand a terrible price from the women if the bakeneko bargain is broken, while Raiko refuses to relieve Gintoki of his obligation or even acknowledge their right to vengeance, sneering “Who’d respect a farmer as a human being?”

The film takes on a more lyrical, tragic tone as the estranged but loving family attempt to overcome their irreversibly altered circumstances. All three long to reunite but are plagued by uncertainty; Gintoki cannot decide whether they are really his wife and mother or demons taking their form, Shige cannot bear to be kept away from the husband she still loves despite the price she must pay, and Yone is torn between affection for her offspring and her unquenchable desire for revenge. Even as Gintoki and Shige are romantically reunited, the ascending and descending scales of Hayashi’s yearning, sensuous love theme suggests that time is slipping away – their fates can only be delayed at best, not avoided. The closing image echoes the opening, reinforcing the sense of inevitability: a body lies in the ruins of their house. Quietly, snow begins to fall, as though the land itself were trying to cleanse and bury the sad results of this insoluble circle of inequality and violence.

In many respects, Kuroneko is self-consciously old-fashioned, drawing on elements of Noh and Kabuki theatre to enhance its rich, sensuous atmosphere. Its slow-burning style is closer to anthologies like Kwaidan (1965) than to more visceral J-Horrors such as Audition (1999) or even Shindô’s own Onibaba. Though they share very little in terms of plot, its closest modern cousin is perhaps Pulse (2001); both combine the intimately uncanny with serious social criticism, before embracing a more existential sense of sorrow. Ultimately, what Kuroneko may lack in sheer terror it more than makes up for in haunting power, its frequent moments of otherworldly, sinister beauty lingering in the mind long after viewing. 

Johnny Restall

Enjoyed the article? Why not check out our J-Horror pod episode with Dan Martin (effects artist Possessor, Censor and Lords of Chaos) and Jed Shepherd (co-writer Host and Dashcam).

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