in Shocktober

Kuroneko (1968)

I hope you’re not too superstitious, because today we’re doubling down on bad luck. Not only is it Friday the 13th, but we’re we’re making matters worse by talking about a movie called Kuroneko, or “Black Cat.” It’s the second film in this marathon from director Kaneto Shindo, who also made Onibaba. Kuroneko is also a return for a few of the stars from that film, as well as its brutal treatment of humanity. What sets it apart? Way more flips.

A woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) are living together after her son is dragged away by a war – that sounds familiar right? Except this time, a band of soldiers happen upon their home and quickly steal their food, rape the women to death, and burn the house down. After the fire dies down, a black cat appears and licks the charred corpses. Soon enough, the women reappear as ghosts, dressed in fine clothes. They start leading samurai, one-by-one, into the woods, where they seduce them in an expansive, ghostly manor and finally maul them to death.

Meanwhile, a young man (Nakamura Kichiemon) kills a massive man in a battle that leaves him the lone survivor. The man returns to his governor, Raiko (Kei Sato), who is pleased with him enough to make him a samurai and give him the name Gintoki. Gintoki gets cleaned up and heads back to his home, which he discovers has been burnt down. What’s worse, he can’t find any trace of his mother and wife. He returns to the governor, who assigns him to kill the ghosts that have been murdering samurai.

You get the idea, right? The ghosts have vowed to kill every samurai, which includes Gintoki. Gintoki has vowed to kill the ghosts, but soon after he meets them, he realizes that they’re his dead wife and mother. So he doesn’t really want to kill them either. Like a lot of horror movies, there’s not going to be a happy ending here. But who’s going to break first? And what does this all have to do with cats?

It’s hard to say what the answer to that last question is. The Japanese title for this film is “A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove,” which might be a reference to the famous Japanese short story In a Grove, and is sort of an idiom for mysteries that are hard to solve (you might know that short story for its film adaptation, Rashomon). What’s not ambiguous is how well Kuroneko creates a beautiful, eerie atmosphere and simply revels in it. This is more of a horror movie than the other Shindo movie I’ve seen, and for that reason, probably an easier movie to recommend. But maybe watch ’em both and have yourself a real bummer of a double feature.