In the midst of a devastating civil war, a band of desperate, battle-fatigued mercenaries led by a ruthless and opportunistic warrior (Rokko Toura) chance upon an isolated hut on the rural outskirts of Kyoto and begin to ransack the property in search of food and water. Encountering a peasant woman named Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi) inside the house, the soldiers then commit a series of grievous and unconscionable acts, culminating in the violation and murder of the defenseless women before setting their home on fire. The scene then cuts to a shot of two stray black cats hovering over the charred remains of the victims as they subsequently make their home among the ruins. Months later, the ringleader – now a retainer who patrols the walled city gates on horseback – is approached by an alluring and mysterious noblewoman seeking to be escorted home through the ominous bamboo forest. Arriving at the edge of the grove, the samurai elicits an invitation to enter the home, and is offered sake and tea by the woman’s mother-in-law who promptly retreats into a backroom in order to afford them some privacy. The young woman then begins her gradual seduction of the guest and, just as the evening progresses to a seeming moment of intimacy, violently attacks the unsuspecting samurai by biting him on the neck and draining his blood. The following morning, his corpse is found lying among the ashes of the burned hut. Soon, a rash of inexplicable samurai deaths – all found with contorted bodies ritualistically splayed among the charred ruins of the hut or left near the Rajomon Gate – begin to surface, prompting the mikado (Hideo Kanze) to issue a mandate to the head of security, Raiko (Kei Sato), for a swift resolution to the crisis. To this end, Raiko recruits a fearless warrior who calls himself Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) – the lone survivor of an entire regiment – after he arrives at the palace grounds to present the head of a formidable enemy named Kumasunehiko whom he had slain in battle. However, as Gintoki finds a disturbing connection between the enigmatic noblewomen and his former life as a humble farmer, his allegiance to the mikado and the samurai bushido (code of honor) are tested.
Loosely based on a Japanese folktale entitled The Cat’s Revenge, Kuroneko is a spare, atmospheric, sensual, and acutely haunting portrait of love, duty, revenge, and inhumanity. Kaneto Shindo juxtaposes elemental and poetic natural imagery with the abstract, highly stylized expressionism of Noh theater to create an indelible aesthetic of visual dichotomy that exposes the underlying contradiction and hypocrisy of tolerated societal behavior. From the introductory presentation of the disheveled, unnamed rogue army leader who participates in the terrorization of the women, then subsequently re-emerges as a distinguished samurai who, nevertheless, is eager to exploit an opportunity to pursue a captivating and seemingly vulnerable young woman walking home alone, Shindo examines similar themes of innate primitivism, godlessness, and violence that exist beneath the veneer of civility as his earlier feature, Onibaba. Moreover, through pervasive ambiguity of character and interchangeability of identities – from the anonymous, brash samurai who was once a forcibly conscripted farmer that parallels Gintoki’s own social evolution (his abandoned identity symbolized in his adoption of the name Gintoki in lieu of retaining his peasant name, Hachi) to the vicious bakeneko (cat monsters) that take on the form of noblewomen who are forbidden by the evil gods from revealing their true names – Shindo draws an implicit connection between Yone and Shige’s sinister pact and the cruel legacy of the samurai bushido that further reflects on the human struggle between individuality and conformity, duty and conscience, personal will and hierarchical laws. By evocatively depicting the irreconcilable tragedy inherent in the unredemptive attainment of civilized order through warfare and social privilege through barbarism, Kuroneko serves as a horrifying and provocative indictment of man’s vain, misguided, and inevitably ephemeral quest for wealth, power, pleasure, and immortality.
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