Despite the horrific elements contained within, Kuroneko is ill served by being pigeon holed into the genre of horror. The genre as a whole has a huge spectrum of intelligence and allegory but there’s more to Kaneto Shindo’s film than this, quite malleable, label. It of course gives scares, and Japanese “horror” is well ahead of the western game in terms of sheer scare value but its philosophical meditations on the mourning of loved ones and revenge seem far more suited to an art house drama than a pulpy, 60s horror film.
The revenge aspect becomes obvious almost as soon as the film starts with its Virgin Spring like narrative depicting the brutal rape and killing of a mother and daughter in law at the hands of a group of ruthless samurai. Japan is in the midst of war, somewhere roughly in the middle of its Edo period; all the men have gone to war while the woman and children have been left, leaving them vulnerable to stray attacks such as the one presented.
As the house burns down with the two women left in it, the viewer is presented with some beautiful cinematography of the fire tearing down the house, just as the soldiers had torn apart the women moments before. In the ashes of the ruins, a mysterious black cat hangs around their bodies and is from then on, present throughout the whole film as a representative of dark creatures from Hell. The film broaches a number of genres, which is partly why it feels wrong simply to put it under horror. Though the opening shares similarities with Kurosawa’s Rashomon, other parts of the film feel strictly like a fantasy as well as the obvious horror elements.
At the gate of a nearby palace, samurai guards are starting to be found with their throats cut and blood drank. It seems clear that there is some creature hunting them but the viewer is told almost instantly what it is. The two women have made a pact with a demon creature in the form of a cat to be allowed to live themselves as strange amalgamations of cat, ghost and demon on the basis they kill and drink the blood of samurai. The younger girl lures the samurai back to their vanishing house in the middle of the bamboo forest at the promise of food and hinting at potential seduction only to murder them with the frenzied attack of a wild animal.
What exactly the two women now are is debatable. They are referred to as spectres yet they can violently kill, float, disappear, be hurt and have the reflection of a cat-like creature in puddles of water. Later on in the film when one of them is hurt by decapitation of the arm, the arm turns into a leg with paw, similar to the legs of normal looking cats that roam both this world and the netherworld.
Emotional complexities start to assure themselves when the husband and son of the demonised women returns from war as a samurai. He has killed the leader of a rival army and is now in the highest position a samurai can be in. The general of the palace entrusts him with destroying whatever evil is killing his men at the Rojomon gate, unaware that the creatures are in fact the vengeful spirits of his late wife and mother.
The creatures themselves are unable to tell him who they are due their pact but when he realises that these creatures have at least taken the form of his wife and mother, he is allowed to stay in their misty house, dispensing with his duties to kill them. The wife however has broken her pact with the demons, and traded seven days with her husband for a lifetime in Hell. All sorts of emotional resonances are here. Grief is an interesting aspect to look at, especially in the more horrific side of cinema, yet here persistent grief has found a perfect metaphor in the form of vengeful cat demon spectres. It’s a surreal and unlikely tool but it works and the samurai’s mourning at the loss of both his mother and wife is presented in the form of battle for the former and sex for the latter.
Shindo’s film also shows that evil is cyclical rather than finite. This is something that would find its way into Japanese horror such as Ringu but here, with the samurai dying in ambiguity as to whether he’ll make the same pact to kill, the cycle has the potential to continue as his body is sprawled in the remains of the burnt house with snow gently covering him.