“My Mind Was Always on the Commoners”: Shindo on Kuroneko in His Body of Work

The following is excerpted from a 1972 interview that film scholar Joan Mellen conducted with director Kaneto Shindo. The interview originally appeared in the 1975 book Voices from the Japanese Cinema.

I find the social dimension of your films very complex and interesting. Would you describe how in your films you depict the class struggle as it has appeared both in history and in society?

Speaking about Onibaba in particular, my main historical interest focuses on ordinary people . . . their energy to carry themselves beyond the predicaments they encounter daily. I wish to describe the struggles of the so-called common people, which usually never appear in recorded history. This is why I made Onibaba. My mind was always on the commoners, not on the lords, politicians, or anyone of name and fame. I wanted to convey the lives of down-to-earth people who have to live like weeds.

In the setting of Onibaba, I noticed that the people seemed very small, moving around a lake where the reeds were very tall and imposing.

Yes, the tall, swaying reeds are my symbol of the world, the society which surrounds people. In Kuroneko, bushes are used for the same symbolic end. Tall, dense, swaying reeds represent the world in which these commoners live and to which the eyes of lords and politicians do not reach. My eyes, or rather, the camera’s eye is fixed to view the world from the very lowest level of society, not from the top.

Do you consider yourself a Marxist?

Ah, Marxist! I am a believer in socialism. I can say that I am a socialist.

One can see your very strong sense of the class struggle both in Kuroneko and in Onibaba. There is a powerful separation in Onibaba between the woman and her daughter-in-law and the rich samurai who has come to die.

If you have to look at society through the eyes of those placed on its bottom level, you cannot escape the fact that you must experience and perceive everything with a sense of the political struggle between classes. This sets the general political background of the film.

Is it your class-consciousness which inspires you as a filmmaker?

Yes, I cannot but be class-conscious. However, I should like to point out here that first I am an artist, not a politician, so I do not see the class struggle as it appears in the political arena. I like to see and describe it as it affects the individual human being, in his daily life. I like to look into the political and class struggle with the eyes of an objective artist. It is so easy to view social conflict with political idealism, or at least with the tainted eyes of political desire. I strive to avoid this by all means. After all, struggles are endemic to our society, with its many faults and contradictions. But I do not hold the view that the artist should accept or merely present society as it is. I am saying that, with an artist’s eyes, I would like to see problems as they are faced by working people, who are the protagonists in my films. I am interested in the way they overcome their difficulties; at least, I like to evoke the hope of overcoming, some prospect for the future.

Does any character in Kuroneko represent the director?

My sympathies are expressed through the peasant mother who is slaughtered with her daughter-in-law at the beginning of the film. In Onibaba, again, the mother is myself.

Yet in Onibaba, you punish the mother at the end by having her become afflicted with a horrible skin infection.

Through punishment, I wanted her to escape the confines of her own old world—in fact, for both women to escape. I punished her, but this punishment is not a kind which ends her world; it does not involve the overt force of punishment alone. I meant this punishment to be a spiritual one, so that through suffering I could reveal the real soul of the mother herself. After her recovery, we, the mother and the director, are ready for the next step into a new world, the stage which might take us to a new future.

You, as the director, at the moment her face is destroyed, are still sympathizing with the mother, rather than with the daughter-in-law, who has the right to live her own life and remarry rather than be forced to work for this old woman who is not even her own mother?

Yes, because she is myself. I am Onibaba.

You did not blame her for preventing her daughter-in-law from running away to find a new man?

No, I prevented it to heighten the issue between them. As far as the story line is concerned, the mother was punished because she tried to stop the girl from finding a new man. But behind the surface drama, there is a story other than the one we are now discussing. It is that everyone in my films, the mother and the daughter-in-law, in this case, is invariably an outcast of society. They are people totally abandoned, outside society’s political protection. Among these outcasts, I wanted to capture their immense energy for survival. Obviously, the mother has done very cruel things, like preventing her daughter-in-law from finding another man. She is punished for these acts, but the punishment is an expression of the uncontrollable events which these people meet in their actual lives. My next suggestion is that the destroyed face is not the end of her world. This miserable face will dry later, and she will find the day to live again. She has to find it. By destroying her face, I said something about the beginning of a new life for people who are assaulted by unexpected social events.

The important thing is for the mother to survive?

Yes. [. . .]

Can you describe how you contrasted moments of sound with moments of silence in Kuroneko? Are there any specific points where the sound stops completely?

Let me see . . . I cannot recall now exactly where and in what scenes I have used silence. But I see film as an art of montage which consists of a dialectic or interaction between the movement and nonmovement of the image. Probably in order to sustain the even tempo of the film, I have used this idea in the soundtrack. The sudden moments of silence are to heighten the effect of the montage through contrast.

Do you yourself do the editing for your films?

Yes, I do it myself. I have an editor, but generally in Japan today, directors spend a great deal of time editing the so-called quality films.

I was intrigued by the use of the cat as a symbol in Kuroneko. The cat seemed to accompany the demon woman, and I felt that this represented some aspect of Japanese culture with which I was not familiar. What is the force of the cat as a symbol in this film?

Let me see. The idea of the cat came to me because the original story was based upon an old Japanese folktale called “The Cat’s Revenge.” It was at least partly based on that story. I liked the idea of using the cat because I could thus express the very low position in society which certain people occupy by using so useless and low an animal as the cat.

The same emotional level is expressed by the cat and by your human beings?

No, it is not at the level of emotion. Only the cat can occupy such a low position in our society. I wanted a strong expression of the degradation of the common man’s life in our culture. I hope you understand this point.

Is there a Freudian aspect to the relationship between the mother and son in Kuroneko? Although, as a demon, the mother must kill her son, she doesn’t want to do it, and the son seems to recognize his mother through the demon.

Yes, there is. There is a strong Freudian influence throughout all my work. I have one question: in the United States, is there any Freudian influence in films?

I would say that it is a minimal one. Italian directors like Bertolucci, Petri, Visconti, Fellini are much more interested in Freud than American directors.

Yes, I agree, particularly in the case of Visconti.

When the son in Kuroneko opens the door to his mother at the end of the film, do you feel that his desire to rise in society and be accepted as a feudal lord transcends his Freudian Oedipal impulse toward his mother?

Even at the end of the film, this conflict remains unresolved.

Do you fear that when you treat extreme scenes such as rape, murder, insanity, starvation, etc., your films have a tendency toward melodrama? Do you consider this a danger?

No, I am not bothered by the use of extremes.

In Japanese films, is it true that melodrama is not considered bad?

I should like to state here my opinion of what melodrama is. I consider melodrama to be a story or situation created artificially, with the sole purpose of attracting an audience’s attention. This is contrived very conveniently. If you want to depict a truthful drama, it is permissible to use any means available. Here I mean any possible dramatic situation, including the extreme examples you mentioned. However, this is the area in which true artists are separated from professional craftsmen. If the director, the “creator,” intends to produce a truly artistic work, he must carefully choose the most suitable dramatic situation from the many possibilities. This selection is in the director’s hands entirely, and the choice determines how fine an artist he is.

Then you believe that melodrama per se is not bad, but what counts is how appropriate it is to the needs of the subject?

It all depends on the context of the film and what other ideas and devices are employed in it. If you talk of the style of a film, the content often decides the style.

Is there any special reason why you, as well as other Japanese film­makers, favor historical settings and legends, fables, and old stories for your plots?

Well, essentially, this is because I am Japanese. We select certain old stories which have sufficient modern application; I should say, stories which have universal and modern implications. I choose one or two out of hundreds. Many are useless for my filmmaking. I am sure that this process of selection must be the same for filmmakers throughout the world.

Do Japanese filmmakers choose historical settings so often because the Japanese feel close to their history? There is not much distance between past and present?

When I want to dissect a modern problem, I actually find many similar problems in ancient days. In fact, without the many outer layers of so-called modern civilization, the themes I find in old stories are more clear-cut. They are so visible and extreme. I am not saying that all historical eras are similar to today. But by using a comprehensible social structure such as we had in the past, it is much easier for me to convey or re-create modern situations.

Why do you think so many Japanese directors, including Imamura and yourself, treat the relationship or conflict between civilization and an earlier, primitive life? Your Naked Island is a renowned example.

Yes, that tendency has been rather popular among Japanese filmmakers for the past five or six years. The reason is that, since the latter half of the nineteenth century, we have been witnessing the weakening of the human mind. I think this is a universal problem. Consequently, modern men, and I for one, are in the process of reevaluating primitive man’s energy and identity. This is a very central question.

You try to recover what is human in a time when people are not acting like human beings? What is your point of view as the director, in Live Today, Die Tomorrow, toward the criminal in modern society?

In this, the protagonist is the pus of a rotten society.

An example of the social disease? Do you sympathize with him?

I stand on the same ground as the protagonist.

Thinking about Kuroneko and Shinoda’s Buraikan, I am interested in the attitude toward the criminal. The criminal is an example of vitality deflected toward society. Do you consider this an example of the vitality which human beings have for survival?

To oppose the law?


You cannot forget here that filmmaking is first of all an art. So, in taking an extreme case like the criminal, you can achieve a strong impact on a society which holds to a deceptive “common sense” about the legal versus the illegal. You are illuminating some­­thing for the audience in the form of a strong and shocking expression. You should not use criminal violence just for the sake of titillation. [. . .]

Are there any Western directors whom you admire, past or present?

Yes, the American Orson Welles and the Russian Eisenstein. They are the best. There are more as well—the Frenchman Godard.

Do you still like Godard—the recent political films?

I like his earlier films. It seems to me that he has changed very much in his later work; the earlier Godard has vanished.

Do you believe any of the young Japanese directors are doing socially interesting films? Are there any directors whom it would be important to include in any discussion of the social consciousness present in the contemporary Japanese film?

Yes, I can think of several. Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, Shohei Imamura, and many more, too many.

How about Teshigahara?

Yes, of course. He is interesting. I admire many young directors. Among older directors, I admire Mizoguchi most.

Not Kurosawa?

Oh, yes. I admire him also [laughs].

You have no items in your shopping cart