A hungry and disheveled band of feudal Japanese soldiers is disgorged by a dense forest. Soundlessly they advance upon a hut that is the home of a young woman named Shige and her mother-in-law, Yone. After taking what they need of food and water, the soldiers take turns raping the two women, summarily torching the house when they are through. After the embers of the ruined homestead have gone cold, black cats approach the two strangely intact, although very much lifeless, bodies and care for them, taking on the spirits of the two murdered women. Subsequently Shige and Yone may be seen in the bamboo grove as spooky apparitions, the younger woman luring samurai to her home, seducing them, and finally killing them by drinking their blood. Many samurai lose their lives this way, and the mikado becomes concerned.
Gintoki, the son of Yone and husband of Shige, returns home from a war in Northern Japan, carrying his enemy’s head as a trophy. The neighbors can only tell him that his house was razed, but cannot vouch for the whereabouts of his wife and his mother. So when he meets Shige again in the grove, he is overjoyed to be reunited with her. Of course something seems a bit off, as the two women dress and conduct themselves as nobility, their house transformed into a lush manor. But after years on the battlefield, Gintoki does not seem to mind, nor are his suspicions aroused by the situation. As chance would have it, the local head of security, Raiko, enlists Gintoki to stamp out the shapeshifting menace in the forest. No one seems sure if it is an animal or spectral threat. As the young man realizes his beloved mother and his wife may not be who he thinks they are, he is faced with a situation that pits his love for them against his loyalty to the government.
Theatrical and stylized, Kuroneko balances emotional understatement with jagged formal subversion. The setting of the women’s home is a continuation of the wild growth of bamboo outside, its geometry slivered by the diagonal lines of the thick shoots, and the atmosphere is notably tinctured by rolling mists and an unremitting feeling of foreboding. After the setup has been established, it moves from being a ghost story to being a love story, and finally to being a story of sacrifice. While ghosts too often function in folktales as effigies of people or ideas, or as plot devices, here they are possessed of the depth of real, differentiated characters. They have a life of their own, so to speak, and are faced with decisions that affect their earthbound presence. Shige, it turns out, is risking damnation for fraternizing with her still-living husband. Upon Ginotoki’s return, their focus shifts from simply meting out revenge to regaining severed love.
The form-change that the ghosts enact upon their surroundings depicts the illusory effects of their relationship with the physical world. It represents a certain ‘making strange’ on the part of the living when they encounter the uncanniness of the spirit world, the recognition of non-recognition. Their house remains, in reality, burnt ruins, but it appears as, and is experienced as, a real dwelling. While this idea is common to many ghost stories, it most immediately calls to mind the phantasm house of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), and is the sort of thing that is used generally as a testament to the subjectivity of a living character’s interaction with a spirit, as the house comes and goes without a trace. Here, being permanent but not actively perceived by everyone, it is more like a plane of shared experience between the dead and their prey, marked by the symbolic transformation of the burnt house into something that can lure people to its site of destruction through its innate power.
The spirit’s transmogrification by way of the black cat (including all the obligatory and unstable physical gradation of a werewolf story) is necessarily redolent of the women’s place in society, and also their subsequent counteracting of it. For the cat itself is docile and not especially threatening, as women in feudal Japanese society were also meant to be. But it is as a forceful creature, as a vengeful terror, that both the cat and the woman access a primal and assertive underpinning to their existence. Human and animal meet in the course of the downward gradient away from civility, and thereby turn the tables on the men in power. Toward the end of the film, Gintoki, in argument with Raiko, repudiates the samurai (and by extension the feudal system) because they only protect the interests of the nobility while the peasants are left vulnerable to starvation and plunder. His words are exactly what is expressed in the reciprocal murders committed by Shige and Yone, since they are, more importantly than killing specific men, targeting the economic and sexual oppression that had doomed them from the outset.
The horrifying violence at the start of the film occurs in near silence, the cicadas in the grass providing the soundtrack. In fact so much of Kuroneko, not least its most disturbing moments, are veiled in a pensive quiet – as a crouchant cat – scenes transpiring as though the inky darkness through which characters so artfully materialize is also muffling their sounds, like a layer of snow. Director Shindô uses chiaroscuro as a visual embellishment of other dualities that are present – that is to say, the light and dark dynamic parallels that of silence and noises, of stillness and movement, of life and death. The world of the living, jigoku (hell), and then the vampiric limbo in which the two women’s spirits reside, in the context of a Japanese cosmology, feel far more existential, and in a way scarier, than even the Christian, Manichean view, for its lack of any potential for release or redemption. It seems quite stark and severe by this comparison. Much contained within the film exists on the brink, teetering above an unknown void, the audience kept on hooks made all the more tender by the stately poise that pervades the pictures that they see.
(edited from my film blob).