KURONEKO (YABU NO NAKA NO KURENEKO – THE BLACK CAT INSIDE THE BAMBOO GROVE)
The American film critic Pauline Kael who wrote for The New Yorker was sharp and eloquent but she never really understood the British. She felt UK film critics worried too much about movie merit and integrity and not enough about whether a film was enjoyable. Kael assumed a movie existed to give its audience pleasure. This belief did not prevent her from being a fierce critic. Kael insisted that movie directors were obliged to make movies for people with brains equal to her own. The emphasis Kael put on pleasure is some distance from that of John Reith. In 1927 Reith established the BBC as an independent broadcasting network. He accepted that the BBC would have to include some programmes that would entertain but Reith also wanted programmes that would provide brains with the ‘opportunity for work’. The BBC would educate the masses.
Kuroneko appeared in the UK in 1968. The movie had a limited release in art cinemas. The Academy Cinema in London was not that concerned about educating the masses. In a way the Cinema was something of a retreat from uneducated hordes. Yet the Reithian doctrine extended beyond the BBC. The Academy Cinema showed foreign films that were expected to provide the brain with ‘an opportunity for work’. The Academy Cinema in the centre of London was a huge success. It had an alert projectionist, comfortable seats, a snobby audience and a more than decent restaurant on the top floor. All this is mentioned because it is satisfying to imagine well fed and educated middle-class Brits wandering past the shops of Oxford Street after viewing Kuroneko. Only the insensitive would not have suffered a shock after stepping out from the poetical world of Kuroneko and into the underachieving commercialism of 60s Britain.
Kaneto Shindo directed 48 films and wrote scripts for others. His movies are a mixed bunch. Several are fabulous. Others, including a few soft porn efforts, were made to either pay the rent or pass the time. Shindo adapted Kuroneko from a folk tale called The Cat’s Return. The film by Shindo is supposed to be loose adaptation. It is still possible, though, to imagine different versions of the tale being told in the modest homes of farmers or around the campfires of samurai warriors. Shindo retains and emphasises the fantasy inherent in the folk tale.
A troop of thirsty and hungry samurai warriors invades the home of two women, a mother and her daughter-in-law. The samurai steal food, disrespect the furniture and rape and murder the two women. The women become spirits and agree with an evil god that they will seek vengeance and kill all the samurai they meet. The samurai victims are seduced and have their blood sucked dry by the female spirits and the evil god. The local samurai governor becomes concerned about the dead samurai that are discovered in the local woods. From a battle elsewhere a samurai called Gintoki brings the head of an enemy general to the camp of the governor. Everyone is impressed by Gintoki and the head hanging from his left hand. The local governor thinks it would be a good idea if this more than capable samurai were used to destroy the murderous spirits. Gintoki rides to meet the two spirits. He is confused by their resemblance to the wife and mother that he loved. He has to decide whether he should love or destroy the spirits, his wife and mother. The two women have a similar dilemma. The movie combines action, suspense and poignant romance.
Kaneto Shindo uses this very different ghost story to explore the conflict between loyalty, responsibility and desire or, if you wish to be sentimental, love. The movie has erotic overtones. Shindo was consistent in his left wing politics and persisted in his hope that political struggle would overcome economic oppression. His later films, although restrained and no threat to even a 60s censor, identified sexuality as a core element in not just human nature but society. For Shindo sexuality was the key to the social or political. Its vitality could produce either harmony or destruction. It also reflected the hierarchy within society. The powerful have a sense of sexual entitlement that brutalises the oppressed, and the powerless are obliged to be submissive and trade their bodies for favours. A samurai explains to one of the women. ‘We are samurai. We take what we want.’ In Kuroneko sexuality is not just a source of vitality. It creates confusion. The distinction between conquering and surrendering is blurred. A similar tension exists in obligation and duty. Here the confusion is between triumph and obedience. To fulfil his orders and to become valiant Gintoki has to suppress his feelings towards his family. He will be a famous warrior who has honoured the samurai code but will have ceased to be human.
Kuroneko is a marvellous film. Indeed it qualifies as a masterpiece and is probably even superior to the great Onibaba, which also has supernatural elements and was made four years earlier by Shindo. No DVD collection is complete without either, and, as it happens, both are available in the superior Eureka Masters Of Cinema series. Shindo has a poetical sensibility, an inspired imagination and a marvellous eye for both landscape and costume. He is also a man of serious ideas and substance. Finally there is supreme craftsmanship. Kuroneko is almost a perfect film. The only flaw is the introduction of Gintoki. It feels like an abrupt interruption and not enough of a separate story to justify the sudden deviation in style. This, though, is nit picking. Everything else is just about perfect. When Gintoki carries the head of the enemy general from the scene of the battle to the fort of the samurai governor, the horse ride across country is sumptuous. It is equal to anything in a Hollywood Western. John Ford knew how to film mountains, rocks and mesas. Shindo has the same ability with trees and forests.
Bamboo trees frame the confused protagonists in Kuroneko. From the opening scene when the camera lingers on the samurai troop walking across a field we are aware that this is the work of a confident master. The outdoors photography is elaborate and stylish. One shot of Gintoki riding away from a bright and enormous sun is irresistible. In the scenes indoors Shindo mixes claustrophobic mannered choreography and simple static conversations. The dialogue is repetitive but succeeds because it emphasises the limited options for the characters and why they are obsessive. The movie is in glorious black and white, and shadows define the images. But to describe the photography as low light is unfair. The darkness is luminous and bold. The sexual is the social, and the personal dominates and defines the action and the story. What exists beyond these people is dark mystery. It feels like how we imagine simple folk tales, large characters moving through a remote and spare world. The kimonos that the two women wear are dramatic and unusual. They add seductive weight and consequence to their presence and hint at their spiritual complexity.
Kuroneko is not a terrifying ghost film. It is, though, eerie and disturbing, like a nightmare that haunts after awakening but refuses to reveal whatever the horror is that left the chill. In Kuroneko the two spirits have the ability to leap into the air. Before CGI, and using just wires to achieve the effect, Shindo somehow makes it look authentic and convincing. The dark shadows help but it is still an impressive achievement. Shindo is more than a technical master with a sense of style. He has sympathy for ordinary people and their stoicism. In this sense he is similar to Japanese greats Mizoguchi and Ozu. The material and movies of Kaneto Shindo may reveal wider interests but the director is a humanist rather than a sensationalist. His interest in people is matched by his love of the camera.
The week I watched Kuroneko I read about Donald Trump giving praise to a fascist group whose members had included Thomas Mair, the assassin responsible for the death of the British Labour Member of Parliament, Jo Cox. In Zimbabwe people took to the streets to celebrate the end of the reign of Mugabe. In Britain the anxious face of Theresa May is ageing while she wonders what can or cannot be said to a crazed President Of The United States. Select British Civil Servants will be sitting in comfortable armchairs and in the same room as their Prime Minister. May will twitch, and the Civil Servants will bite their lips. In Zimbabwe there will be people or officials who will remember how they complied with the wishes of an oppressive dictator. Amongst these people some will remember being torn between duty and the desire for a clean conscience, rewards and comfort on the one hand and self-hatred on the other. But wherever the country happens to be these privileged lackeys are interchangeable. They are not, though, to be compared with the stoic but flawed innocents that Ozu, Mizoguchi and Shindo treated with respect and admiration. The assistants to the powerful are much more dangerous than ordinary folk. Whilst some of these deal makers are prone to the risks of their own vital sexuality, most avoid the damage they inflict on the meek and humble.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.