With the artistic success of Onibaba under his belt, director Kaneto Shindo was set to premiere Kuroneko at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968. It was there that Kwaidan – another Japanese period horror film – started its road to success three years earlier, winning the Special Jury Prize and later an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Instead of letting Kuroneko have its time in the spotlight, fate had other plans; that year, several prominent French filmmakers – Truffaut, Malle, and Godard among them – successfully shut down the festival halfway through to protest the Minister of Culture. Without the groundswell from Cannes, the film premiered in New York in the 70’s with little fanfare and it wouldn’t be until years later that its culture significance would be discovered by film geeks.
Like many of Shindo’s films, Kuroneko focuses on agrarian society in Japan and the oppression they face. Set during the rise of the samurai, a later scene features two characters, Gentoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) and Raiko (Kei Sato), discussing the need for classes and how war benefits everyone, even the farmers. When Gentoki comments that the farmers are poor and without money or food, his master says that that would happen no matter what; that’s just the way things are because someone needs to be on the bottom. In light of recent events dealing with the economic state of the US (and the world, really), Criterion couldn’t have released Kuroneko at a more relevant time.
The film’s title translates to “Black Cat” in English, touching on the cultural belief of animism – widely found in Buddhism – which states that various animals are connected to humans through strong positive and negative emotions. When the film begins, Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and Shige (Kiwako Taichi) are raped and left for dead by a group of samurais as their house burns – in other words, the higher class using the lower class for what they need and then discarding them. Their cat, absent during their torment but present for the burning aftermath, sees their corpses and helps them seek revenge. Unlike the Maneki Neko, which is a good luck charm that is supposed to bring prosperity (it can be found at almost any take-out place and the cover of Weezer’s The Lion and The Witch), the black cat is helpful in a more mischievous way; in this case, it reincarnates the women as demi-vampire cat demons whose sole purpose is to drink samurai blood. Like Rashomon, the basis of the film was derived from the Konjaku Monogatari, which is a collection of medieval tales of the supernatural.
When Gentoki – husband and son to the slain women – returns from battle, he’s promoted to samurai under Raiko’s command and is sent to get rid of the specters thinning the ranks. Once they meet, both parties are hesitant to carry out their perspective duties, which starts the film down a strange, but satisfying, Freudian road.
Expressionistic in more than a few ways, Shindo sets up a fantastical atmosphere and characters through experimental lighting and slow-motion in Kuroneko. Using Kabuki Theatre techniques like wire work was nothing to film, but combining it with slow-motion to give characters cat-like elegance and movement certainly was. The presence of two well-known performers like Otowa – who was trained at the Takarazuka Theater and ended up becoming a Shindo regular, always playing a strong female role – and Nakamura – who can strike a pose and glare like no one on Earth – only made Kuroneko better.
As usual, Criterion’s 1080p transfer is fantastic, capturing the many shades of black, white, and grey used to create the expressionistic aesthetic of Kuroneko. Blacks are deep and whites are bright, though the image is somewhat soft in a handful of scenes. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and was created in 4K from a 35mm print struck from the original negative. There’s absolutely no evidence of DNR or banding, and the grain looks natural throughout. The original monoaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original optical print. Criterion remained true to the source material and although it’s not thumping in 5.1, the lossless mono track sounds great regardless.
Kaneto Shindo Interview (60:28) – The director of Kuroneko and Onibaba dissects his entire body of work, and talks about how he got into the business, what his upbringing was, and the people he worked with and ran into during his career. Though the interview is over ten years old, Shindo is still alive and working; he directed his 45th film last year and will be turning 100 in 2012. What’s really interesting is that the interview was conducted for the Director’s Guild of Japan by his former assistant director Seijiro Koyama, who admits he didn’t want to do the interview and is actually afraid of Shindo; he apparently didn’t talk to him out of fear on the first few films they made together.
Tadao Sato Interview (16:57) – Much of his work hasn’t been translated for foreign publication, but Tadao Sato is a respected and well-known critic in Japan. Here, he talks about Shindo’s career some, as well as the actors involved and their backgrounds, but mostly comments on the cultural significance of Kuroneko, both politically and spiritually. He comes across as very knowledgeable and, if you’re like me, the interview will probably make you want to grab a copy of Currents in Japanese Cinema, which is supposedly an excellent book of essays.
The 28-page booklet includes excerpts from a 1972 interview Joan Mellen conducted with Shindo, entitled My Mind Was Always On The Commoners, and The Mark Of The Cat, an essay by the always informative and fun to read Maitland McDonagh.