THE BLACK CAT (1968)
posted 00/00/2008

Directed by:
Kaneto Shindô

Starring:
Kichiemon Nakamura ... Gintoki
Nobuko Otowa ... Yone
Kiwako Taichi ... Shige
Kei Satô ... Raiko

Country: Japan
Runtime: 99 min
Original title: Yabu no naka no kuroneko
Kuroneko
     
       
   

Mood is extremely important in a horror film. Nothing gets that sense of dread and terror across better than a darkened forest or a lonely room. Kaneto Shindo's follow-up to his gorgeously-composed erotic horror film Onibaba is just as creepy as that movie, but caked in layers of shadowed mood that will instantly hypnotize the viewer and draw them into a dreamworld where vengeance and demons and lost love intertwine.

Yone and Shige, a mother and daughter respectively, live by a small stream in the woods, awaiting the return of Shige's husband Hachi from the current civil war. A band of Ronin stumble onto the stream and while drinking they spot the house and decide to ransack it for food and supplies. They find the girls and decide to have a little fun. They rape the women and then set fire to the house. Later, with the fire gone and the house a ruined mess, a black cat shows up and walks over to the dead bodies of the women. He begins to lick their wounds, and the pair returns as vengeful cat demons appearing as ghosts. Shige stops Samurai on the road to the Rajomon Gate, asks them to walk her home (a take on the hitchhiking ghost story, which this film probably inspired), and when she brings them to their inn in the middle of the woods, she asks them to come in for a drink. Yone brings them sake, and leaves Shige and the Samurai to do what men and women do best, but during the act, she tears into their throats and drinks their blood.

Word of the killing ghosts reaches the town and Raiko, the leader of the Samurai, is charged with putting an end to the reign of terror. But who should show up but Hachi, the husband and son, who is now redubbed Gintoki of the grove for his excellence in battle. He finds out that his house has been burned, but can find no trace of his wife and mother. In the meantime, Raiko gives him the task of finding the monster at the Rajomon Gate and destroying it. He heads there that night and finds his wife, who he doesn't recognize at first. She leads him to the house in the woods and he is served by his mother, and realizes who they are. They deny it, and he begins to think that ghosts have decided to take the form of his missing wife and mother and tries to kill them, but they disappear. He shows up the next night at their fog-drenched and shadow-laden inn in the dark woods, but doesn't find them. He begs them to appear, promising not to kill them. Yone and Shige want to see him, but they made a vow to kill Samurai and drink their blood, and since Gintoki is a Samurai, being with him would break their vow. Shige does not care and meets with him. They spend the next seven nights making love.

He returns on the eighth night and finds her gone. Yone tells him that Shige broke her vow to the God of Evil and she had only seven nights to pledge her love to him, and now she is condemned to hell. Gintoki leaves, heartbroken, and his mother continues her blood feast on drunken Samurai in the city. Raiko wonders why Gintoki has not stopped the monster, and demands he put an end to the beast or he will die instead. He finds his mother in the gorgeous bamboo forest and as he walks her home, he sees her true form in a puddle of water. Realizing his mother is gone and the thing before him is a cat demon and nothing else, he attacks her with his sword and manages to cut her arm off. The human arms sprouts hair and curls up into a large cat's paw. He takes it back to Raiko as proof that the demon is dead, and is placed in a temple to purify himself for seven days. His mother shows up, of course, and demands her arm back. She tricks her way into the sanctuary, places the arm in her mouth and flies off through the roof, disappearing into that world where demons live, leaving Gintoki all alone and swinging his sword futilely in the fog.

This beautifully made film is not only a creepy horror story, but a wonderful work of art. It's lusciously atmospheric and sets a dreamlike pace, which does give the film a slow build, so this is not one for adrenaline junkies. One of my favorite scenes is the one where Yone and Shige debate whether they should see Gintoki or not, and as they walk along a wooden path through the bamboo forest a spot light appears wherever they sit and disappears as they stand. It's an amazingly gorgeous film, and a wonderful moodpiece for the Halloween season. If you have never seen a black and white horror film before, then I urge you to go out and find this film. On some levels, I like it better than Onibaba, another classic of the genre, and I promise you that you won't be disappointed by this stunning film.

  - Jose Prendes

 

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