Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindô, 1968)
English Title: Black Cat From the Grove
With Kuroneko (Black Cat From the Grove), director Kaneto Shindô dissects the divide that separates the classes in medieval Japan. The opening scene shows a solitary hut that is enveloped by a bamboo forest. Hordes of samurai warriors appear from the forest, slowly walking towards the hut. Inside the hut are two peasant women quietly eating their lunch. The warriors start grabbing their rice, and unsated, start raping the two women in horrid succession. The warriors leave the two unconscious women and the hut burning.
It's a disquieting introduction. Shindô doesn't emboss the sequence with any musical score, as we only hear the crickets chirping, the stream running, and the few shrieks and grunts by the women and the invading horde. It reinforces the feeling that the samurais arrived, pillaged, and disappeared with hardly anybody noticing and anyone really caring. Later in the film, the samurai leader would defend his class by stating that it is the powerful that rule over the weak; that there's no rationale in hating the samurai class. His statement is of course pure folly as we have witnessed with immense efficiency how the samurai and war can directly affect the comman folk.
Kuroneko is of course a kaidan (ghost story) and the two women resurface as vengeful spirits who roam the night to lure wandering samurai into their abode. After seducing the samurai with gratitude, flattery, cups of warm sake, and sex, the two would finish him off with a violent bite in the neck --- the same way a tame black cat would pounce on his master. The treachery keeps them alive; and it fuels their vendetta against the warmongers who ruined their lives in an unnoticed heartbeat.
The warriors would of course retaliate. Several mighty samurais have died and the samurai lord orders Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), fresh from an unexpected victory against a formidable fighter, to investigate and destroy the spirits. Gintoki turns out to be the husband and the son of the murdered women; yet the twist is that Gintoki is no longer a peasant but a samurai, and thus an appropriate victim to the wraiths' murderous plans. The blurring of these roles are treated with unabashed tenderness --- Gintoki and his wife (Kiwaki Taichi) would thereafter spend several days in romantic bliss, unmindful of each other's missions to destroy each other.
It is obvious that Shindô admires this class-less happiness. He shoots the couple's scenes together in an eroticically gorgeous manner; quite different from the wife's previous seductions wherein the men are ravenous for flesh. The sequence is poignant; coupled with the mother (Nobuko Otowa)'s painful dance (again, different from the more rabid dance performed during their murderous sessions) and the couples' incandescent lovemaking, there's no denying that the class-crossing dilemma is the ultimate heart of the film.
Shindô tells the story with a dutiful eye for detail --- the bamboo grove is made eerie by the fog; the wardrobe and the make-up applied to the two wraiths; the intricate detail that surfaces the amusing stereotypes (the mustache and the body hair of the samurai leader, the transformation of Gintoki from filthy peasant to titled samurai by several buckets of warm water); the perfect lighting (especially inside the wraiths' abode). Kuroneko is simply wonderful cinema. It is scary not because of jarring sound effects or sudden visual stimuli, but because it draws you in into the hapless drama, and the irrevocable damage caused by war and the men whose fortunes are rooted from it.