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by Jay Seaver

"Seeing this 'Black Cat' is no bad luck at all."
5 stars

Kaneto Shindo's "Kuroneko" is a ghost story that derives its horror not from sudden shocks, but from the inevitability of events. It is as familiar as folklore and often seems staged in a way meant to remind the audience of its artifice, but it sucks the viewer in. It doesn't create an atmosphere of panic, but one of distinct unease.

The film opens with tired, bedraggled samurai emerging from the woods, drinking from a stream near a small farmhouse, and then going in. A mother (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) are having their supper, and it doesn't take long before the soldiers sate their appetites. They burn the evidence, but a black cat chances upon the bodies. Later, a palace samurai happens upon a beautiful woman near Rajamon gate; he offers to protect her as she walks through the woods, only to find he's been lured into a trap. Many more samurai perish; the lord demands that Raiko (Kei Sato), the head of his army, get to the bottom of it. This, he decides, is a job for "Gintoki of the Glade" (Kichiemon Nakamura), the sole survivor or a battle in the north. Gintoki has his own mystery to solve, though - what happened to his mother Yone and his wife Shige when their home burned a year ago.

Though a ghost story, Kuroneko is certainly an art-house film by today's standards, and probably the standards of its time (originally released in 1968 Japan, a restored 35mm print is currently touring North America). Its sets and cinematography sometimes bring to mind a stage production more than those associated with film, a feeling enhanced by the stiff posture and occasionally flat, declarative manner of speech (which likely extends beyond period accuracy). Shindo will show things to the audience for a few seconds longer than need be to get the point across, or change from a full set to a plain black background with a smoke machine running. It's a deliberate formalism, likely more than a bit foreign for western audiences, but often fascinating and engrossing to watch. It enhances the folkloric feel of the story without relying on crutches like narration or captioning.

But Kuroneko is not a stage play put on screen by setting a camera up in the audience. The opening, wordless and unscored scenes are examples of exceptional direction and editing: The samurai emerge from the forest and return to it in the way that evil spirits might; we see a shot of a samurai with rice on his face, the very image of greed and gluttony, just before they escalate from theft to rape; Shindo and editor Hisao Enoki quick cut between images of an outwardly ordinary cat atop the ladies' corpses in a way that makes it appear unearthly. Later, a special effect so crude that the audience can practically see tape on the frame does a marvelous job of signaling that these characters have become unstuck in space and time. These techniques don't fade into the background at all, but even seeing the artist's hand at work, a viewer can't help but be impressed by how effective they are.

What they achieve isn't necessarily raw terror, but a richer blend of emotional flavors. At points the film is far more erotic than horrific - when Gintoki confronts the woman creature who, as he puts it, looks exactly like his Shige there's love and desire and the persistent question, in the back of one's mind, of just what he would be making love to. It positions its vengeance-seeking ghosts with one foot on either side of the line between monstrous and righteous. It makes the most out of its blood and nudity. It's as tragic as it is exploitative.

As unusual and formal as the movie is, the cast still makes it fairly simple to connect with their characters. Kichiemon Nakamura Is tremendously appealing as Gintoki; it's a character who could easily be portrayed as entirely out of his depth, but instead Nakamura shows us a guy who is inexperienced but who has a good heart and head to follow. His scenes with Kei Sato's Raiko are nifty little bits of contrast; you can see Gitoki losing his respect for the arrogant, blustery head of the samurai, to whom Sato gives a perfect air of entitlement. Kiwako Taichi also plays very well off Nakamura, releasing the emotion that had been tightly held back before, and Nobuko Otowa plays one of the more interesting ghosts in cinema, one somewhere between the spirit of the deceased and the blind rage of later J-horror.

"Kuroneko" isn't like the modern Japanese ghost stories that many got sick of this past decade; it's more like a cinematic version of traditional Noh theater than a conventional horror movie. Its deliberate pace may frustrate some, but others will likely find its craft exhilarating.

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originally posted: 11/06/10 14:48:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Kaneto Shindo

Written by
  Kaneto Shindo

  Kichiemon Nakamura
  Nobuko Otowa
  Kiwako Taichi
  Kei Sato
  Hideo Kanze

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