Kuroneko (1968) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Kuroneko (1968)

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Yone and Shige live in a peaceful bamboo grotto, both waiting for the return of Hachi.  A band of soldiers descends on their home, devouring their food before raping and murdering the two.  In the cinders of their once-peaceful home, a black cat perches itself on the two, and soon a mysterious force begins murdering the local samurai.  Kaneto Shindo wrote the screenplay for and directed Kuroneko, which stars Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi, and Kichiemon Nakamura.

A thought experiment.  In the United States, we have a system of justice that's built on the bones of racist and sexist oppression.  I snap my fingers and, tomorrow, this system is gone.  No police, no militarized zones for patrolling, no drug raids - nothing that resembles the system of justice we have.  What does society look like?  Has it collapsed with the disappearance of our system of justice and enforcement, or have those who lived under those conditions continued to live their lives in a freer state?

Kuroneko, in ways both unsettling and revolutionary, suggests that any system that thrives on the pain of those it's supposed to protect needs to be eliminated.  All at once is impossible barring some total societal collapse, but one at a time the weeds can be plucked from the spring of human existence until we come to a place where a measure of peace might be obtained.  There is no peace in Kuroneko, not in the terrifying opening moments or the tragic conclusion.  Yet there's some part of me that can't help but think maybe, just maybe, these women who were once innocent and alive are onto something by destroying the system that was supposed to protect them one samurai at a time.

In garb and skin, the ghosts are a stark reminder of the samurai's sins before extracting their revenge.

Oppression, and the subsequent violence to come, is treated as a force of nature.  The idyllic home of Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and Shige (Kiwako Taichi) sits as a calm oasis of peace.  The squeaking on the soundtrack, like vermin creeping toward their prey, precedes the arrival of warriors who enter the previously peaceful frame as little more than animals.  Growling, slurping down water, violently taking food and then the bodies of Yone and Shige before burning down their home.  Like a storm of locusts, no sooner do they inhabit the frame do they leave with desolation in their wake.

Director Kaneto Shindo, who also wrote the screenplay, films this and the later acts of violence with a serenity counter the onscreen crimes. His still camera during the pillaging at the beginning of Kurenoko makes the end of Yone and Shige feel like an inevitability.  When he does move his camera, it happens in quiet pans, observing the striking white figures who emerge from the darkness in the wake of Yone and Shige's murder.  Though color film was firmly established when Kurenoko came out in 1968, his decision to film this story in black and white underlines the moral compass of the universe.  Regardless of how you may feel about their means, the ghosts of Yone and Shige luring then slaughtering the local samurai is a good as blindingly clear as their white frames against the darkness.

The ghosts are elemental and serene, even in the midst of killing.  One stunning shot shows Shige's ghost drifting along the rafters of Rajomon Gate, only to approach an unwary samurai in a liquid display of acrobatics and she flips over the man and his horse.  This is the first time Yone and Shige will turn the violence they suffered against the samurai, and what fascinates me is they give the man a long enough audience to hint at the evil inside him.  In another slow movement of Shindo's camera, the samurai's face occupies more of the frame as he expresses his philosophy that, "We samurai can take whatever we want," all as the rustling of wind and bamboo signal a different force of nature the ghosts symbolize.  A force of vengeance.

Shindo throws a potential complication to the ghosts' plan with their the arrival of their still-living loved one.  Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura), husband of Shige and son of Yone, assumes the name Gintoki and is tasked by the governor to slay the murderers of the Rajomon Gate samurai.  The complication here works in the threatening presence of the ghosts, who must slay all samurai to keep their existence, and Gintoki (as he is now samurai) realizing who the ghosts are.  Despite his connection, he is driven by the same thirsts as the other samurai, and as anyone who has had relationships with blood relatives deteriorate will know - what is right does not always mean keeping those blood ties intact.  Sometimes it is better to sever.

The man once known as Hachi first serves as a beacon against the samurai, but is later subsumed into the same darkness.

With Kurenoko, Shindo goes all-in with this ethical conclusion.  I admire the bravery of this, as one of the few ideals that exists across multiple societies is the importance of family.  But the revolutionary violence of the ghosts carries more implications for the hollow ideals of the samurai than any blood relation.  Going back to my thought experiment, some might see the peasants looting the body of a samurai mid-film as a sign society will collapse without them.  I think of the later words of the governor, "Who cares about peasants or even considers them human," and see society taking the salvageable pieces of the corrupt samurai to make their lives a little easier.

For all the eerie movements of the ghosts, the period-appropriate buildings and weapons, and inevitable menace lies a beating heart of revolutionary feminism that resonates with today's struggles.  We needn't wait for a tragedy to begin dismantling the system that gives power to those who want their lusts satisfied no matter the cost.  This may mean shedding, either socially or physically, connections that we've been taught matter the most.  No need for hindsight to prove the necessity of revolution, art like Kuroneko shows tentative steps toward that future are as necessary as the sun beating down on Gintoki's dirtied skin.

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Kuroneko (1968)

Screenplay written and directed by Kaneto Shindo.
Starring Nobuko Otowa, Kiwako Taichi, and Kichiemon Nakamura.

Posted by Andrew

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