Any self-respecting cinematography enthusiast should know the name of Kaneto Shindo (1912-2012). As a director, he brought us narratives like Children of Hiroshima (1952), the naked Island (1960), and Onibaba (1964) and, as a screenwriter, he wrote dozen of scripts other well-known directors like Kon Ichikawa (1915-2008), Keisuke Kinoshita (1912-1998), Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986), Fumio Kamei (1908-1987), Kōzaburō Yoshimura (1911-2000), and Tadashi Imai (1912-1991). As such, it is only logical that psycho-cinematography reviews masters of Japanese cinema, such as Kaneto Shindo. In this article we review his horror narrative Kuroneko (1986).
The narrative of Kuroneko is set during the Sengoku Period, which was initiated by the Ōnin War (1467-1477) and came to a close with the unification of the country in 1615 by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), and tell the story of two women, Shige (Kiwako Taichi) and her mother-in-law Yone (Nobuko Otowa), who are living together at the edge of a bamboo grove, while awaiting Shige’s husband’s return from the battlefield. One day, they are brutally murdered and raped by a passing band of roaming samurai. A black cat allows them to return as vengeful spirits so they can enact their wrath on not only those who harmed them, but any samurai happening to be passing by the Rajomon gate.
Meanwhile in northern Japan, Hachi or Gintoki (Nakamura Kichiemon II) is fighting against the Emishi and is able to kill the enemy general, Kumasunehiko. In acknowledgement of his achievement, the governor, Minamoto no Raikō (Kei Sato) makes him a samurai. Returning to his dwelling at the edge of the bamboo grove, he finds his house burned down and his bride and mother missing. And then, Raikō orders Gintoki to kill the samurai killing specters that are haunting the Rajomon gate.
One of the most important aspects of Kuroneko is the cinematographical trend that structures the stylistic framing of the narrative. By way of using shots that follow the subjective point or character to identify with, the viewer is enabled to assume different points of identification – the two most important ones from the cinematographical perspective are Oshigi and Gintoku, and feel the true dilemma (between revenge and love) that structures the narrative.
Another aspect that makes Kuroneko’s narrative effective is the way in which, by different cinematographical techniques, the existence and presence of the yokai and the otherworldly eerie plane where they reside is brought to life. The interplay between light (white) and shadow (black) and the intelligent use of sounds and music further enforces the otherworldly, mysterious, haunting mood that characterizes the residence of the yokai.
The acting may feel at times like being out of a stage-play, but in this case it only adds more emotion to the whole. While we have various strong acting performances, the performance of Kiwako Taichi as the seductress and as lover is utterly fabulous.
The tension that drives the narrative of kureneko is mainly created by the fact that the viewer is positioned as the one who knows more than the unknowing samurai as well as by the repetition of revenge scene as such. While the samurai feel sustained in their phallic belief, in their belief of being powerful and that women desire this kind of manliness, the viewer knows that the men are being played – they do not know that their phallic belief is but a fiction they themselves believe in, i.e. they are powerless.
But this tension, associated with the Oshigi and the cinematographical repetition, disappears, by way of an unexpected plot twist. Instead, unpredictability is inserted into the narrative and its resolution – without evaporating the feeling of an ill fate waiting to be realized. The narrative then becomes focused on two dilemmas, both symbolized by the very central narrative structure of the Rajomon gate, which separates the Diamyo and the samurai from the farmers on the land. The dilemmas of Gintoki and Oshigi both concern ‘giri’, the obedience to one’s superiors – in Oshigi’s case the cat, and ‘ninjō’, the compassion and love.
The framing of Oshigi’s dilemma makes the reading of Kuroneko as a feminist manifest against paternalistic values impossible. The narrative shows the unsustainability of both positions, the revengeful joyful position of the women who made a pact with the evil black cat as well as those men – here in the guise of samurai, who give rein to their jouissance – and from the viewer’s viewpoint transgress the law. Kuroneko, in our view, is a critique against unlimited jouissance/enjoyment and a paternalistic society in which such things may take place. With regard to this unlimited enjoyment, the solution Shindo evokes – and this may sound strange, is nothing other than love, as framed by the repeated sexual encounters of Gintoki with Oshigi. But with the flight of Yone, who is by then totally consumed by wrath, Shindo also underlines that what drives man (i.e. the drives in Freud’s terms) lies beyond language/society and will always be problematic.
Kuroneko is not the feminist manifest some make it out to be and it is not a defense of paternalistic values either. Instead, the narrative of Kuroneko confronts the viewer with the dilemma between revenge and love, and with what lies beyond, unlimited enjoyment. The essence of the narrative is masterly translated on the screen by the stylistic and often minimalistic cinematography. And even though Kuroneko’s age is sensible in certain areas, Shindo has nevertheless crafted a seductive, mysterious and mesmerizing narrative that has stood the test of time. A true classic that everyone should see at least once.