Scratch the surface of a contemporary J-horror classic like Ringu (1998) or any of the Ju-on films (2000–03) and you’ll glimpse Yabu no naka no kuroneko (Black Cat from the Grove), released in the U.S. as simply Kuroneko (1968). Shot in shimmering, widescreen black and white and suffused with an unsettling eroticism, Kaneto Shindo’s elegant nightmare of earthbound violence and otherworldly revenge wasn’t the first film to be rooted in Japanese folk stories about onryo, the vengeful spirits of those who were abused in life, usually women, whose rage is so great it can’t be contained. The Ghost of Yotsuya (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1959) and Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1965) both preceded it, and other classics of Japan’s golden age of filmmaking—notably Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953)—featured female spirits. And supernatural cats had appeared in Black Cat Mansion (Nakagawa, 1958) and The Ghost Cat of Otama Pond (Yoshihiro Ishikawa, 1960). But Shindo drew those threads together and wove them into Kuroneko’s unprecedentedly unnerving women, whose descendents are now many, and into a terrifically spooky story whose resonance extends beyond the satisfying chill of an exotic campfire tale and whose wrenching psychological anguish transcends specific cultural traditions. So why isn’t it as well-known as contemporary works like Nakagawa’s deranged Jigoku (1960), whose lurid vision of hell on earth and beyond quickly earned it a loyal cult following, and Kwaidan, which was feted at Cannes, championed by critics, and nominated for an Academy Award?
The answer is partly sheer bad luck: Like Kwaidan, Kuroneko went to the Cannes Film Festival, but it arrived in 1968, the year François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Louis Malle spearheaded a successful effort to shut the festival down halfway through, to protest Minister of Culture André Malraux’s decision to oust Cinémathèque française director Henri Langlois from the institution he founded and to show solidarity with the students whose demonstrations had brought Paris to a virtual standstill. Recognition at Cannes could have boosted Kuroneko’s profile and helped it pick up U.S. distribution while it was still the talk of in-the-know critics and movie buffs, as it had done for Kwaidan and Woman in the Dunes (1964). Without that validation, Kuroneko opened briefly in New York six years later, sans fanfare and to withering critical indifference. Ironically, the international flowering of interest in Japanese cinema at the time may also have hurt Kuroneko: mainstream critics and movie buffs of the 1960s were busy catching up on the works of Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and Nagisa Oshima.
Shindo, born in Hiroshima in 1912, had already amassed a formidable and incredibly varied list of writing and directing credits by the time he made Kuroneko. How the son of a poor farming family came by his dream of being a screenwriter is hard to imagine. But by his early twenties, he had managed to get himself hired in the art department of the small but prolific Shinko Kinema; his first two produced scripts were the studio’s last two productions. After two years in the army, he was hired by the venerable Shochiku Eiga, and wrote scripts for Ichikawa, Seijun Suzuki, and Mizoguchi—the last of whom he considered a mentor and memorialized in the 1975 documentary Kenji Mizoguchi: The Life of a Film Director—before trading security for artistic freedom in 1950 when he cofounded Kindai Eiga Kyokai. The fledgling production company’s second feature, written and directed by Shindo, was Children of Hiroshima (1952), in which a young schoolteacher (played by Shindo’s wife and muse, Nobuko Otowa) negotiates the human and material ruins of her hometown in search of former pupils; its timely and affecting treatment of a painful subject guaranteed Shindo international attention. He went on to write and direct a steady stream of contemporary and period dramas, war movies, biopics, thrillers, juvenile-delinquent movies, yakuza pictures, and sex comedies, including the critically acclaimed Naked Island (1960), a wordless, starkly poetic documentary-fiction hybrid in which members of a subsistence-farming family reenact scenes from their endless struggle to scrape together a living on an inhospitable island, and Onibaba (1964), a ruthlessly unsentimental period horror tale about two women surviving wartime privation, which looks in retrospect a bit like a bleak dry run for Kuroneko.
Set during Japan’s Sengoku (or Warring States) period, some 150 years—from roughly the mid fifteenth century to the early seventeenth century—of bloody conflict among regional oligarchs, Kuroneko opens with a scene of grimly banal horror, one that wouldn’t be out of place in The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now and that gives no hint of the supernatural complications to come. A band of samurai—who resemble the noble, honor-bound swordsmen of movies like Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress no more than the average medieval knight did one of Camelot’s chivalrous warrior poets—swarm out of a dense bamboo grove like locusts. They descend on the small farmhouse occupied by the middle-aged widow Yone (Otowa) and her daughter-in-law, Shige (Kiwako Taichi); the last they heard of the man of the house, Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura), was when he was abruptly conscripted into the army of local warlord Raiko Minamoto (Kei Sato), the same arrogant but politically adroit clan leader to whom the roving samurai answer. Or at least they answer to him when he’s close at hand, which he isn’t now.
The exhausted, hungry, and lustful samurai help themselves first to the women’s food and water and then to the women. By the time their appetites are sated, Shige and Yone lie dead; the pillaging samurai leave their battered corpses sprawled as they fell, set fire to the house, and fade back into the sheltering bamboo. When the sun rises the following morning, the house has been reduced to blackened spikes of wood and a carpet of ash. But the women’s bodies are strangely intact, and a black cat delicately picks its way through the ruins to lick their still bleeding wounds. This is where grim realism yields to a dark magic the most rigorously rational mind is at a loss to banish.
Western folklore regularly puts cats in general, and black cats in particular, in league with witches and other dark forces, but Japanese folktales are more ambiguous, starting with the fact that, while all felines are suspected of being more than handy mousers and cute house pets, they allow for two kinds of supernatural cats, the manekineko and the bakeneko. Anyone who has eaten in a Japanese restaurant knows what a manekineko looks like: perched somewhere near the cash register, it sits with one paw raised in greeting and the other resting on a coin, benevolently beckoning good fortune to come on in and stay awhile—Hello, Hello Kitty! The bakeneko, by contrast, is kissing cousin to the shape-shifting fox (kitsune) and the sly, mischievous tanuki (a small, scruffily kawaii canid native to East Asia): none are inherently evil, but all are capable of using their supernatural knack for mimicking other creatures—including human beings—to stir up trouble. That said, the fact that bakeneko often eat the person whose form they’ve taken suggests they’re less amusing and more alarming than their fellow shapeshifters, and the shadow of feline malevolence lurks in Kuroneko’s fog-swirled gloom.
Three years after the deaths of Yone and Shige, one of the samurai rides through the Rashomon Gate, the line of demarcation between the streets of Kyoto and the dark, quiet countryside. A woman whose gauzy white kimono seems to give off its own faint glow asks for his help: she’s frightened by the shadows and fog, she says, but would feel safe if one of Lord Minamoto’s brave warriors were to escort her home. On the way, he can’t help remarking that she walks awfully fast. Once they reach her door, she invites the samurai in to rest for a while, and her mother melts out of the darkness with sake; her unnerving entrance is little more than the sum total of meticulous lighting and staging, but it’s profoundly unheimlich—uncanny in the most disturbing sense of the word. The handsomely appointed house, the samurai gradually realizes, stands exactly where Shige and Yone once lived . . . In fact, the women look remarkably like Shige and Yone, or at least the way Shige and Yone would look were they dressed and coiffed like aristocratic ladies—and not, of course, dead. When he remarks that they seem familiar, he could swear he sees the older woman’s rope of thick, glossy hair twitch like a cat’s tail—this before he’s had so much as a sip of sake. Peculiar, but what’s a little trick of light and shadow when the young beauty looks as though she may respond favorably to an indecent proposal? And so she does, though her thrilling caresses mask a lethal intent.
The women repeat their ritual until peasant gossip that a “grove ghost” is killing samurai prompts the shogun to demand that Minamoto get his house in order. Minamoto’s remaining samurai are shamefully reluctant to volunteer for the job, but fortune is on Minamoto’s side, albeit in the form of the now barefoot, dirt-caked Hachi, who somehow lived through the grueling battle that killed a highly regarded general and two thousand trained soldiers. Minamoto cynically makes the peasant a samurai, dubbing him Yabu-no-Gintoki, the name Hachi the rube previously invented for himself in hopes of seeming more formidable.
Hachi/Gintoki’s psychologically charged cat-and-mouse game with the spectral women is Kuroneko’s darkly seductive heart. He both recognizes Shige and Yone and knows they aren’t the Shige and Yone he left behind; given the place and time, it seems entirely reasonable for him to suspect they’re demons who’ve cruelly appropriated the appearance of the most important women in his life. That said, the newly minted samurai understands how much a few years can change a person. The ghost women, meanwhile, are wrestling with their own dilemma: they know perfectly well that under the warrior finery, their guest is Hachi, and wish they didn’t. There’s no real winning here, just infinite degrees of losing—losing one’s soul, life, honor, or humanity.
Kiyomi Kuroda’s silky cinematography is as fine as his work on Onibaba, and the influence of Hikaru Hayashi’s percussive score can be heard as far afield as Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria. But it’s Kuroneko’s final image of wrenching desolation that ensures its place in movie history: Onibaba’s grotesque O. Henry (by way of Sade) twist ending may be more immediately satisfying, but Kuroneko’s conclusion is a sliver of ice straight to the heart. And now, more than four decades later, the black cat has finally emerged from the shadows, sleek, hair-raisingly graceful, and ready to take its place alongside the other landmarks of Japanese horror history.
Maitland McDonagh has written about film for publications ranging from Dance Now to the New York Times and Film Comment. She is the author of four books, including Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento and Movie Lust: Recommended Viewing for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason.