Kuroneko (1968)

JANUARY 28, 2012


The most common misconception about Criterion releases is that they are supposed to be the "best" movies of all time, which people continue to claim despite the fact that neither Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, The Godfather, Shawshank Redemption, or Dr. Giggles have been given the treatment. No, Criterion releases films that are significant in their genre or the whole of filmmaking, which is why Armageddon is part of the collection: name a better example of "dumb, big, and loud" summer blockbuster movie-making. So I was excited for Kuroneko (translated to The Black Cat), because I don't see too many Asian horror films from before the 90s, and with Criterion behind it I figured it would be quite memorable and exciting.

Well, I can only guess that at the time it was pretty amazing. It's not a bad movie by any means, but it's not particularly involving, either. There are potentially exciting plot points in the film, but everything is drawn out and under-developed, as if it was a campfire tale of sorts that got stretched out to feature length without much further development of the story.

The basic plot is this: a woman and her daughter-in-law are raped and killed by a traveling group of Samurai in the opening sequence, and then some time later their ghosts are seen killing any Samurai that crosses their path. So it's sort of like a rape-revenge tale but without specific victims. I couldn't even tell if the guys they kill were part of the original group, but since they have vowed to take down ALL Samurai, it doesn't really matter to the movie's plot. I (the viewer), however, DO have a problem with this - it instantly turns the victims into villains. At least if they were seeking revenge on their specific attackers it would work, even at the eventual point where the line between victim and attacker becomes a bit blurred (a staple in these sort of things). Here that line is crossed pretty much in the 2nd scene - for all we know these Samurai were perfectly decent men. At least Paul Kersey was still taking on thugs and lowlifes if not necessarily the ones who killed his wife, you know?

Plus it drove me nuts that the movie hinges on our hero (who isn't even introduced until the movie's nearly half over) not recognizing his own mother or wife. He sees the resemblance, but it's not until he's banging the wife that it finally sinks in. And he fails to recognize his mother not once but TWICE during the movie's narrative. Once he understands that it's them, certain plot points result in his mother turning against him, and near the end of the film she shows up saying that she's a witch of some sort. Her face isn't that much different, but he again doesn't realize that it's his mom until a particular defect on her person is revealed. Come on, man! Or at least, come on, makeup man! Make her look different enough to fool the audience as well.

That said, I do dig the basic idea of a guy being ordered to investigate/kill the "monster" that's been killing his brethren only to discover it's the ghosts of his mother and his wife. Because of their code of honor and all that, it's not a simple "I can't do it, I know them" type situation - he is sworn to kill them. Additionally, they themselves are sworn to kill HIM, as he is a Samurai and they have vowed to take them all down. LAYERS, man. But again, this stuff is so drawn out, and partially based on our acceptance that a guy can't recognize his own family (even when their cat shows up he's like "Ah, I had a cat that looked like that with my wife who looked exactly like you. Weird!"), that it never felt as compelling as it should. The passage of time was also an issue; years go by in between their murder and the appearance of their ghosts, but we only discover that later.

Beautiful looking film, however. The scope widescreen image mixed with true black & white photography just looks gorgeous, and director Kaneto Shindô finds a lot of wonderfully striking shots: snow fall on the forest setting, the long opening shot of our band of evil Samurai making their way through the woods (and their matter of fact exit later), and others all made me glad I was watching this on Blu-ray. The bits of violence were also surprisingly graphic for their day, with the ghosts tearing at the victims' jugulars. The story may have been a bit too loose for my liking, but I never felt the need to take my eyes off the screen, either.

As this was a rental I cannot judge the merit of the booklet that comes along with the retail version, which has essays and the like that would probably help me understand its significance a little bit better. On the disc we get an interview with Tadao Sato, a Japanese critic that DID help clarify some things for me, such as the fact that Shindo was pretty much the only one at that time who would dare paint the noble Samurai in a negative light. I also liked that ghost movies were a staple of the Japanese summer movie season, particularly after this last summer in which not a single horror film was released wide from May to July (unless you count Priest, which was more of an action movie). He also provides some info on the actors and Shindo himself, and seems like a pretty jovial, well-versed guy (he also discusses cat psychology, which was fitting as my beloved Butters was sitting on the couch with me, purring happily). There's also an hour long interview with Shindo himself; I tried watching it but as it was about his whole career including story details I gave up; this is the first of his films that I've seen and didn't feel like having the others spoiled. Plus I just got other stuff to do; I had mixed feelings about the movie, no use sitting around for an hour trying to learn more about it.

I'd love to hear some takes on this one though, perhaps with someone more familiar with 1960s Japanese horror films - is this one of the better ones, in your opinion? Is there a title you think would make a better "entry point" for a n00b like me? And do they all involve cats?

What say you?


  1. Oh boy, here you go:

    Body Snatcher from Hell

    Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People

    Jigoku: The Sinners of Hell

    And bonus non-60's,
    Miadroid: Robo-Kill Beneath Disco Club Layla

    Waaaaaayyyyyy worth your time, all of them.

  2. Definitely try Jigoku mentioned above (it's relentlessly weird in spots), the slow burner called Kwaidan

    and Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well and Tengoku to Jigoku (High & Low), which aren't two more horror films at all, but have some really interesting elements I think you'd appreciate.

    Also, all of those classic films you mentioned (except for Dr. Giggles) are in good hands or owned by certain folks who aren't letting them go, so Criterion won't be touching them as far as I can tell.

    Wait... Dr. Giggles? I'll have to see it again when it pops up on cable, as it certainly didn't do a thing for me back when it originally hit theaters. Then again, my mood in the 90's was a tad weird...

  3. I'll back up Jigoku, which is AMAZING. In fact, I think I already mentioned that one in the official "recommendations" post. Also, Goke is great, and Criterion has the rights to it...if only they'd release it. Also, Onibaba is another really good Criterion (from the same director as Kuroneko).

    As for Kuroneko, I love its mood and atmosphere; particularly love how the little hut is tucked away in that forest--the one shot where everything around it is swaying is so subtly eerie.

  4. Also, a great read about another J-horror film:

  5. For Kuroneko, I adulation its affection and atmosphere; decidedly adulation how the little hut is tucked abroad in that forest--the one attempt area aggregate about it is acceptable is so cautious.

  6. my favorite, Sword of Doom(1966). i consider it psychological horror.


  7. The Sword of Doom is pretty awesome (especially that long battle at the end and of course, the ending).

    In a more true horror vein, I'd also recommend Onibaba (1964):


    And here's a longer list of potentials to keep you occupied: http://tinyurl.com/dja5o8

    1. The ending to Sword of Doom is abrupt because they were suppose to make two more movies, watch the Satan's Sword trilogy with Raizo for the full story.

  8. Sword of Doom is indeed epic. Love that one.
    Just as a note, I found out just last night over at my buddy's place that Goke is on HuluPlus under the Criterion section. Yeah, they've gone to the trouble of putting it on Hulu, but still haven't released it...

    There's also plenty more J-Horror from that era to enjoy and everyone's suggestions are pretty right on.

    Seriously, BC, go get 'em. There's some really great stuff you still haven't seen...

  9. Loved Kwaidan and Matango, but didn't care much for Jigoku, though it's weird enough to give a watch.

    Sword of Doom is great but I'd call it more of a Samurai movie. It's a must watch though.

    Throne of Blood is a take on Macbeth and has some great ghost - horror elements, Toshiro Mifune chews through the scenes to the bitter end.

    Daimajin is an excellent giant monster movie you may not of heard of in a more dramatic tone of the original Godzilla. Has two sequels.

    Just to throw in a Hong Kong movie, if you haven't seen Boxer's Omen do so immediately.

    1. OH GOD! OH GOD! BOXER'S OMEN! Jesus, everybody: Watch it now!


  10. Nice review!

    I do agree with you about some unconvincing aspects like how he fails to recognize the mother in the end scene especially.

    As for the first meetings when he returns, I suppose you could say, since he first sees the ruins of his house and the passerby says the house was burnt down, he presumes them to be dead. Lives of the farmers were unpredictable anyway. They usually fled or died trying in the war stricken feudal Japan.

    Also if you see, he does say that the two women looked like his mother and wife but dressed differently. And they don't reciprocate as recognizing him either, so probably he doesn't push. Takes them to be just that..lookalikes. Later when they disappear, perhaps he thinks of them to be "ghosts" who have taken the shape of his women. (For it was a common thing and existence of ghosts was not considered absurd). He even says "I cut off your arm, for I thought you were an apparition that took my mother's form".

    But yes, in the climatic scene, a different make up or face could've helped. It is dumb that he fails to recognize her.

    Have you seen Shindo's "Onibaba"? That film is stupendous, and hopefully you won't have such issues with the story in it.


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