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?