09:00 - 15th August 2013, by Calum Waddell


This 1968 Japanese horror classic comes from the same filmmaker (Kaneto Shindo) who offered up Onibaba and, although the latter title is widely regarded as the best scary movie to ever emerge from The Land of the Rising Sun, we would wager that Kuroneko is even better. This macabre monochrome milestone is taken from a Japanese folk tale and, in its home nation, is known as A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove - a reference to the darkly-furred feline which occasionally appears onscreen and signals the onslaught of nightmarish visions. In the fantastic collector's booklet which Eureka provides with this release, author Doug Cummings mentions the lineage of the black cat in Japanese mythology: largely related to an ancient distrust which is interlinked to the creature's nocturnal behaviour. This is especially relevant to the plot of Kuroneko - which introduces us to two vengeful female spirits who are written off by the local governor as 'just an animal or a night-prowler.'

Unfortunately, the truth is far more terrifying...
More explicitly supernatural than Onibaba, Kuroneko is set during Japan's Heian period (somewhere between 794 to 1185). The film begins with a surprisingly gruelling sequence which is still likely shock today: a mother and daughter are raped by a group of samurai. Shot from the point of view of a distanced onlooker, the slightly voyeuristic - and helpless - staging of this moment is grisly and uncomfortable. However, this bout of brutality effectively sets up what is to come. Both women are murdered and their house is lit on fire. A passing black cat licks at the corpses and this, in the universe of the feature's esoteric dreamlike logic, allows the two victims to reappear as animalistic, fast-moving, tree-scaping spectres. In short: the souls of the deceased are, somehow, merged with that of the passing moggy.

Naturally, vengeance is on both of the female's minds. They summarily seduce passing swordsmen and slaughter them - after which they disappear into the night. Meanwhile, the husband / father of the pair has returned from battle and is looking for his wife and daughter. What he discovers fills him with fear, and leads to Kuroneko's fantastic - and unpredictable - final act. All the while, director Shindo stages his action with a gorgeous gothic allure and some frank sexual conduct - including the rare sight (for this era in Japanese filmmaking) of nudity. Indeed, this is a far more frightening flick than Onibaba and considerably more transgressive - with moments of haunting horror and perverse paranormal happenings. Praise certainly has to be given to its leading ladies - the prolific Nobuko Otowa and the less well known Kiwako Taichi (both now deceased) - who give consistently convincing, and admirably brave, thespian turns.

As with such later films, including Japan's own Female Convict: Scorpion series and the more famous American likes of I Spit on Your Grave and Mother's Day, Kuroneko doubtlessly helped to define what became known as the 'rape-revenge' movie. Less obviously sleazy - and infinitely more 'arty' - than the movies which succeeded it, Kuroneko perhaps shares some lineage with the Swedish shocker The Virgin Spring (famously remade as The Last House on the Left). Released in 1960, and directed by lofty art house 'god' Ingmar Bergman, The Virgin Spring tackled the theme of violation and vengeance with a straight-faced, sombre sadness. Kuroneko borrows some of this thematic but offers a more menacing take on the trend: spinning out an old fashioned ghost story but with a feminine and (dare we say it?) even feminist face. After all, the strength of the onscreen oestrogen is never in doubt, and it is the male characters who are viewed as wormy and weak - regressive, predictable and sexually frustrated, Kuroneko has little sympathy for its 'macho' samurai.

Of course, we should not forget the ghostly element of Kuroneko which, in its own way, anticipates the later J-horror bomb of Ringu and Ju-on. Studied and suspenseful, this is a good old fashioned frightener - with plenty of mist and malevolence, as well as a genuine feeling of increasing confusion and a nightmarish purgatory. The two sexy-spirits - at once inimitable and yet fiercely feminine - no doubt inspired many a long-haired ghoul from later genre jaunts (Sadako from Ringu comes immediately to mind). Ultimately, it all means that anyone who has any sort of interest in Japanese horror - and especially the genesis of the genre - has to see Kuroneko.

At a brisk 95 minute running time, Kuroneko is a compact and creative creeper. Even today's thrill-seekers, weaned on the gore and grue of multiplex horror, are (unless totally black and white phobic) unlikely to be bored by this masterpiece. It is to the horror film what Poe it to the horror novel: radiant of a much-missed time when a 'spine-tingler' was something that actually involved vast imagination and a convincing sense of mysterious monstrosity...

Consider this the real 'paranormal activity' - a classic that should creep into the nightmares of every generation...
SCORE: 5/5
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