Tuesday, October 30, 2012


For American movie fans, perhaps the most preposterous element of Tim Burton's Batman Returns was the idea that a woman who had been thrown from a high window of a skycraper, albeit with awnings partly breaking her fall, could be restored to health, if not life itself, by getting licked by cats. Such was Burton's reputation already that most people -- I was one of them at the time -- probably assumed that the idea was his own, or that of his screenwriter. More likely, Burton had remembered Kuroneko, a film by the late Kaneto Shindo that has a few more elements later to be seen in Batman Returns. Like Burton's Catwoman, the vengeful ghosts of Kuroneko can take gymnastic tumbling runs. Like Burton's movie, Shindo's has a tragic finish in a wintry setting. Like Batman Returns, Kuroneko is a fairy tale in which a happy ending is impossible. But while Burton presumably grafted elements of Kuroneko somewhat awkwardly on comic-book archetypes, Shindo's film has the deeper integrity of authentic myth.

Shindo also has Burton beat, two cat women to one. Yone (Noboku Otowa) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi) are on their own on the farm because Yone's son Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) has been conscripted into an army. Unprotected, they're helpless prey for a foraging band of samurai. Claiming their usual prerogatives, the men rape the women; for extra measure, they kill the hapless duo and burn their house down. But lest you think war is hell, hell has something in store for the warriors.

I am Kuroneko, hear me roar.

Enter the cats, who give our victims a licking and starts them ticking again. But there's an implicit pact with a "god of evil" who sets them up in a mystery house and tasks them with luring wandering samurai, seducing them, and biting their throats out. Soon, tales of a monster preying on samurai are the terror of the region.

Meanwhile, Gintoki becomes a hero and a samurai by slaying a Goliath-like warrior. Thanks to his new reputation, he's entrusted with slaying the local monster. Instead of encountering a monster, of course, our hero encounters two women who inexplicably resemble his wife and mother, who they claim not to know. They know better, of course, and Shige is troubled by her renewed desire for her husband, while Yone warns her either to do her job or steer well clear of Gintoki. But neither Shige nor Gintoki can resist the old attraction, nor can Gintoki fail to see the obvious for long. For love, Shige spares him, but pays a price. Meanwhile, Yone keeps on killing, and the pressure grows on Gintoki to get rid of the monster once and for all....

Love conquers all? Not this time.

The monochrome melancholy of Kuroneko seems very preminiscent of Tim Burton, but the mother-daughter menace more clearly refers back to Shindo's best-known global art-house hit, the somewhat more grounded Onibaba. Kiyomi Kuroda did the cinematography honors for both films, and makes the more fantastical Kuroneko one of the very last great black-and-white horror films, alongside its late contemporaries Night of the Living Dead and The Cremator. The three principle actors really sell the tragedy, while Kei Sato as Kintoki's overlord is a grandly hateful portrait of inhuman samurai arrogance. While there are several shock-attack moments early on, the real horror of the picture is the predicament imposed on the ghosts and the hero alike, since you could well decide that the samurai as a class deserve what they get from the ghosts. A supernatural afterlife doesn't really right the wrongs of life, and when evil claims the rights of vengeance where's the good anywhere? Like the last of the ghosts in Kuroneko, it's not to be found in the snowy sky, even if you search unto death. For all his refusal of happy endings, Burton set Batman Returns at Christmas and closed with the slightest hint of redemption, or at least resurrection. Kuroneko ends in the depths of winter, but it's really a Halloween movie at heart.

1 comment:

knobgobbler said...

Thank you, I'd never heard of this movie but it sounds like something I must see. Dark and haunting.

As for Tim Burton... I'm still trying to imagine what he'd be doing if it weren't for Edward Gorey.