Kuroneko

I was invited back to Teleport city to write about Kaneto Shindo’s enduringly eerie horror movie, Kuroneko (1968). Read a little here and then head on over to Teleport City for the rest!

Kuroneko is a film that feels older than it is. Shot in 1968, five years after Shindo’s more famous horror movie Onibaba, Kuroneko hearkens back to the more humanistic period pieces and sword-fighting films of the 1950s. Kuroneko is also one of my favorite films. And not just because it has cat demon ladies in it. Though, really, cat demon ladies should be an enormous draw for anyone. Cat demon ladies and ghost cats have been around long before Ju-On / The Grudge or even before Utagawa Kuniyoshi illustrated a sweet party of a lady, two cats dancing with handkerchiefs on their heads and a giant cat monster interrupted by some guy in 1835.

In fact, it’s a genre in theater, “neko-sodomono” (“drama dealing with a family dispute and a cat” or “Cat Troubles”), and most cat demon films can be traced back one way or another to stories like Yamata Kaiiki’s “The Nekomata Fire” (1708), in which a cat with two tails sets a samurai’s (probably haunted) house on fire, Tsururya Namboku IV’s play “Okazaki Ghost Cat / Traveling Alone To The 53 Stations” (1827), Kawatake Shinshichi II’s play, “The Chaos of the Ghost Cat of Arima” (1880) and before that into spooky ghost stories about cats who could appear as human beings. The 1840s kabuki play, “The History of the Stone Monument of the Demon Cat of Sagano,” was adapted for film in 1910. “Okazaki Ghost Cat” was made into a film in 1912. All of them have been adapted several times since.

Kuroneko begins on the outskirts of Kyoto during the Heian Era, almost as much in stillness as in silence.  It looks like a painting of a small house and an overgrown rice field. The grass sways in the wind, a group of ragged almost naked soldiers emerge from the woods in the background. Cut to the sounds of a cicada, horrible mouth shots and drinking noises. They enter the house of Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and Shige (Kawako Taichi). The women are poor. Everyone in those first ten minutes of the film are ragged and desperate. It reeks of poverty, but the kind of poverty caused by war. The women cannot work their farm, whether for reasons of safety or because Yone’s son (and Shige’s husband) Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) has been conscripted it’s hard to say. And by “conscripted,” I mean kidnapped and forced to fight the Emperor’s war against the indigenous people of Japan under real, historical personage Minamoto no Raiko (Kei Sato). The soldiers burst into Yone and Shige’s house, stealing their food and raping and killing the women before setting the house on fire. The family’s black cat comes home, crying. It sits with them as the house burns down.

The first dialog comes ten minutes into the film, as a mounted samurai asks a high-class lady lingering outside the Rashomon Gate after dark, “Who are you?”

The woman tells him she lives with her mother in a bamboo grove just outside town and she fears being attacked by bandits. Shige has returned from the dead with Yone to get revenge as demon cat ladies.

Read the rest here.

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