Whenever you finally track down a film you've been dying to see for years, there's always a risk that you've set it up for failure. It can't possibly live up to your expectations, can it? It's more than likely to leave you wanting more and even if you can't really fault it, you'll probably still walk away a little bit disappointed. Sometimes though...Sometimes it's everything you wanted.
Kaneto Shindo's 1968 ghost story "Kuroneko" ended up completely satiating my long simmering curiosity. As one of the main inspirations for latter day J-Horror films (along with the director's own previous "Onibaba", Masaki Kobayashi's "Kwaidan" and Nobuo Nakagawa's "Ghost Story Of Yotsuya" and "Jigoku"), "Kuroneko" is not really a horror film itself. It deals with horrific occurrences, but is really a simple ghost story that also happens to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing black and white films I've seen. The sharp contrasts (e.g. the brightness of the ghosts white dresses versus the darkness of the forest around them, etc.) and the very theatrical lighting used in several sequences helps to highlight the fantastical nature of the story and tends to burn images into your mind like it's an old television set. Shindo creates a somewhat surreal environment for these two female ghosts to exist - a house with changing shafts of light at the edge of a bamboo forest and near the Gates of Rajomon. The contrasts feel deeper here than in the real world where the rest of Japan is struggling through the Warring States period and samurai have all the power.
The story begins with a wandering band of these samurai as they exit the woods and approach the hut of a mother and her daughter-in-law. These men have survived their recent battles, but seem to have lost their humanity - they raid the hut for food, rape both the women and burn the hut to the ground. In the smouldering remains, a black cat wanders over the two charred bodies and licks their wounds. Given the title of the film (Kuroneko means Black Cat) and the screen-filling closeups of the cat's face and eyes, you know this is no ordinary feline. The two women return as spirits and have a simple task - to seek vengeance upon all samurai. Each and every samurai who wanders through the gates near the bamboo forest is met by the young woman. Each one appears honourable at first as they unfailingly help her back to her house through the darkness of the bamboo forest, but once they enter the house and have been served numerous drinks of sake, they feel they can help themselves to the young woman. This, of course, is part of the spirits' plan. Once vulnerable, the young woman attacks them in a vicious animalistic way while the mother does a dance of death.
The bodies are left to be found in the forest and word of these multiple samurai deaths soon reaches one of the local lords. He has recently been impressed by a samurai who was the sole survivor of a long battle, so he commands him to find and dispatch the killers (not realizing that there is a supernatural element to the deaths). The man who now has this unenviable task also happens to be the missing son/husband of these two women. He was once just a farmer living with them in the now burned out hut, but was forcibly removed three years earlier to become a soldier. Unfortunately, in their current incarnation the women's pact with the evil spirits still holds that they must kill all samurai. The young woman is faced with the choice of spending 7 days with her husband and being banished forever to Hell or to hold up the pact and kill him like the others.
This portion of the story adds in melodramatic scenes from both husband and wife, but it fits within the context of the film. The horrors of the unnecessary wars (that benefit the samurai, but leave farmers and villagers in squalor), the terrible choices left to families and the no-way-out scenarios presented to them all provide the impetus for these high levels of emotion. Meanwhile Shindo continues his filmmaking tricks to remind the audience of the abilities of these two spirits - via reversing film, repeating short segments and using subtle changes in makeup and facial features, both spirits acquire feline characteristics as they stalk and attack their victims. As opposed to anything that will scare you outright, the film is gorgeously haunting - a feeling that I suspect will stay with me much longer than it took to see the film in the first place.