In this poetic and atmospheric horror fable, set in a village in war-torn medieval Japan, a malevolent spirit has been ripping out the throats of itinerant samurai. When a military hero is sent to dispatch the unseen force, he finds that he must struggle with his own personal demons as well. From Kaneto Shindo, director of the terror classic Onibaba, Kuroneko (Black Cat) is a spectacularly eerie twilight tale with a shocking feminist angle, evoked through ghostly special effects and mindblowingly awesome visuals.
Maitland McDonagh on Kuroneko: The Mark of the Cat
Scratch the surface of a contemporary J-horror classic like Ringu (1998) or any of the Ju-on films (2000–03) and you’ll glimpse Yabu no naka no kuroneko (Black Cat from the Grove), released in the U.S. as simply Kuroneko (1968). Shot in shimmering, widescreen black and white and suffused with an unsettling eroticism, Kaneto Shindo’s elegant nightmare of earthbound violence and otherworldly revenge wasn’t the first film to be rooted in Japanese folk stories about onryo, the vengeful spirits of those who were abused in life, usually women, whose rage is so great it can’t be contained.
The Ghost of Yotsuya (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1959) and Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1965) both preceded it, and other classics of Japan’s golden age of filmmaking—notably Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953)—featured female spirits. And supernatural cats had appeared in Black Cat Mansion (Nakagawa, 1958) and The Ghost Cat of Otama Pond (Yoshihiro Ishikawa, 1960). But Shindo drew those threads together and wove them into Kuroneko’s unprecedentedly unnerving women, whose descendents are now many, and into a terrifically spooky story whose resonance extends beyond the satisfying chill of an exotic campfire tale and whose wrenching psychological anguish transcends specific cultural traditions…
… Western folklore regularly puts cats in general, and black cats in particular, in league with witches and other dark forces, but Japanese folktales are more ambiguous, starting with the fact that, while all felines are suspected of being more than handy mousers and cute house pets, they allow for two kinds of supernatural cats, the manekineko and the bakeneko. Anyone who has eaten in a Japanese restaurant knows what a manekineko looks like: perched somewhere near the cash register, it sits with one paw raised in greeting and the other resting on a coin, benevolently beckoning good fortune to come on in and stay awhile—Hello, Hello Kitty! Thebakeneko, by contrast, is kissing cousin to the shape-shifting fox (kitsune) and the sly, mischievous tanuki (a small, scruffily kawaii canid native to East Asia): none are inherently evil, but all are capable of using their supernatural knack for mimicking other creatures—including human beings—to stir up trouble. That said, the fact that bakeneko often eat the person whose form they’ve taken suggests they’re less amusing and more alarming than their fellow shapeshifters, and the shadow of feline malevolence lurks in Kuroneko’s fog-swirled gloom.
Read more of Maitland McDonagh’s article, which discusses the historical context of this horror masterpiece, HERE.