Elements of Kaneto Shindô’s 1968 film Kuroneko are faithful to the traditional Japanese horror genre: we see black cats, wavering forests, rankled ghosts, and psychologically disturbing deaths and their revenge-scheme counterparts. But the film is more than the sum total of its parts, and Shindô’s eye for detail serves him well in conjuring the surreal and uncanny from well-worn tropes. In different hands, Kuroneko could have been another document of a Japanese macabre sensibility. Shindô instead gives us a cutting and elegant film about violence, revenge, and their costs.
The film opens with a long shot of a small hut edged against a bamboo grove; it is 15th- or 16th-century Japan, and the country is riven by civil war. The scene is pastoral and peaceful, but foreboding, too perfect. Our sense of dread is answered as a horde of samurai swarms the hut, where Yone, a middle-aged widow, and Shige, her daughter-in-law, live alone. Yone and Shige are quick to resist but too weak to fight, and so the samurai avail themselves of the women’s food, and then the women. Leaving Shige and Yone for dead, the samurai hike up their drawers and lay a torch to the hut. We watch as everything burns—everything except, curiously, the women, whose bodies bear only a few scarred marks around their necks. A black cat creeps out from under the rubble and licks at their wounds, and in the scenes that follow, we intuit that a kind of transubstantiation has taken place. Yone and Shige rematerialize as something like feral succubi: outfitted as aristocratic women in their new, spectral forms, they move to a large and immaculate home at the edge of the grove and prowl the gates of their small rural town at night for samurai flesh.
Revenge, for these women, tastes like blood, and like sex. In ritual executions that masquerade as seductions, Shige and Yone draw samurai back to their home and pick them off, one by one. These scenes bring the film’s taut surrealism into sharper focus, and Kuroneko manages to feel both rigorous and languid without any sense of compromise. On one evening, Shige play-dances with a samurai as a prelude to the sex he wants, making clean angles and convex curves with her wrists and neck. Shindô draws our eyes to the embroidered curtains that rustle in the spotlight as Shige slips her kimono off her shoulder, and then across to the patterns on Yone’s coat as she communes with the underworld in a trancelike state. Shige spreads the samurai out on the floor, as if to straddle him, but instead tears out his throat with her teeth. The shot pulls back, outside the women’s home. As the camera pans, Shindô pulls us from Shige’s shadow, writhing on top of the samurai, across a dark, foggy walkway, to Yone’s stern face as she watches on. There is a single drum beating somewhere in the distance, as if to keep time.
It is tempting to see Kuroneko as a film about the vengeful utopian fantasies of the under classes: both Shige and Yone are modest peasant women who, at the time they are raped and left for dead by “noble” samurai, are awaiting the return of their beloved Hachi—Shige’s husband and Yone’s son, who was snatched away by the state three years prior and forced to train and fight in the civil war. And it is suggestive that the men Shige and Yone destroy are pompous and stupid aristocrats. But to value solidarity without specificity, in this film, is to miss the point. Kuroneko’s particular allegiance is to the seductive detail—which is to say, to the feminine: where Shige and Yone are precise and deadly, Shindô’s men are vulgar and indiscriminate. The women become the look, feel, and logic of the film itself. Kuroneko is so sharp that it could break skin, and Yone and Shige kill plenty of men.
Their erotic dispatches catch the attention of the local authorities. Raiko, the city’s ill-at-ease samurai boss, is pressured by the shogun to get his ranks in order, and so sends his newest guardsman, Gintoki, to find and destroy the “grove ghost.” Like the samurai before him, Gintoki patrols the city gates late at night and, like the samurai before him, he is lured back to the mansion at the edge of the grove by Shige. As Shige and Yone sit in their parlor with Gintoki, there is a beat. It is clear that Gintoki feels unsettled by the women and their reclusive home, and he asks after their names—they look just like his lost wife and mother, and their home is so near to the one he was forced to abandon three years ago. The women look stricken. They know that, beneath the veneer of nobility, Gintoki is their Hachi, and they wish they didn’t. They evade his questions, then crumple to the floor and weep after he departs. We discover that the women’s killings are borne out sport and obligation: in return for their new bodies, they swore to the underworld to destroy all samurai.
This revelation, abrupt and sorely felt, is the moral heart of Kuroneko. The question the film poses is not how to best exact revenge, but about the nature of revenge itself: is it worth it to sacrifice the man you love in a vendetta against the men who wronged you? The empathy and conviction with which the rest of the film treats this question is what saves Kuroneko from edging into crass political allegory. Everyone is familiar with sex and death as the twin sisters of filmic narrative, but Kuroneko reminds us that sex and death are just as often the proxies we use to put our theories of love and justice to the test. Without giving away the ending, I’ll just say this: the idea that revenge, sweet as it may taste, does not always come in absolutes feels not only intuitive, but by the film’s close, most like the truth.