藪の中の黒猫 (Kuroneko), 1968
Dir: Kaneto Shindo
I'll describe the strange way (actually not so strange, but whatever) in which I came to see this, because if I knew exactly what it was before going to see it, I might not have gone (that being said, I'm still kind of glad I did). Again, there wasn't much going on at the theaters (normal or artsy-fartsy) that I was really interested in going to see (or at least that I thought I wanted to see. I can psyche myself out of going to see anything). However, the last listing for Kendall was this, and I noticed it was from 1968, so obviously I was like, "Japanese classic. That's worth it." What I didn't know when I sat down in the theater is that it was directed by Shindo, who also directed Onibaba (1964), and that it is basically the same type of film, except this time instead of hanging out in reed beds, Shindo heads to a bamboo forest.
Not only does he change location, but he moves on from a woman just pretending to be a demon to actual fucking demons. This is the big leagues. And not just any demons, but evil cat demons who have sworn an oath to the God of Evil to drink the blood of all samurai in revenge for what happened to them (Revenge fantasy?!? Calling Tarantino...). Don’t get me wrong, ghost cats seem like they could be interesting (I guess?) but the mythology and folklore elements are all sort of lost on me due to the silly (if not simplistic) morality complex and just the fact that Shindo just seems to tell the same story over and over again. It would be reductive to call this a rehash of Onibaba but the similarities are staggering.
I’ll give Shindo some credit because he really does manage to make all his movies look really good. It’s kind of fitting then, I guess, that this film is at its best when Shindo decides to focus less on exposition or any dialogue for that matter, and tries to make the film one extended montage. For at least 15 minutes or so, he manages to collide a series of images which repeat the routine of the daughter-in-law, played by Kiwako Taichi. We see her confront samurais, lead them through a forest, and then seduce them once they arrive at the demons secluded place before ripping out their throats in demon mode. It’s a bit repetitive and probably exhausting for the viewer looking for some “J-horror” but represents Shindo at his sharpest. He manages to repeat this exercise but still produce new images. Sure, from a pure narrative standpoint, it’s easy to “get,” but it is one of the few times he is not chiefly concerned with progressing the story. It’s the film’s most self-consciously artistic sequence, and also one of its best.
I’m not saying that the content here is completely boring, in fact, towards the end it actually becomes a little poignant. The encounters the hero has with the ghost version of his wife is heartbreaking despite the fact that it shouldn’t be. It’s weird, I get the impression that Shindo wanted to tell a story about losing loved ones and, based on sequences like the one I mentioned, he would have nailed it. Unfortunately, there’s an excess of the folklore stuff, which really just reinforces the silliest and most negative stereotypes of the genre. The whole bit at the end with the giant cat arm is redonkulous (though I'm sure those looking for standard, exaggerated horror stuff might like it. They might also be into the aerial ghoul dances and the smaurai/ghost duels). It’s really a shame too since it comes off the heels of by far the most emotionally resonant stretch in the entire movie. Oh well, some good stuff here. I think cinema fans and just plain old horror fans could both enjoy this.