Among the most notable exports of Japanese horror films to the world at large is the onyro, involving tales of malicious ghosts and spirits interacting with the human world. The influence can still be felt to this day with ghost stories including everything from “Ringu”, “Ju-On”, “Dark Water” and many more similar such films not just from Japan but around the world, most of which trace their inspiration to classic efforts including this one from revered director Kaneto Shindo.
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Traveling to a remote village, Raiko Minamoto (Kei Sato) and his samurai gang find Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter Shigei, (Kiwako Taichi) alone in the village, then rape and murder both of them before setting fire to their home and continuing on. When a black cat arrives at the scene afterward, the other members of the samurai group, out on their own traveling the land by themselves, all come upon the same situation of having to rescue a woman from a creepy forest and taken back to her mother’s house, before meeting the same grisly fate time and time again. When he learns of the treachery to his men, revered warrior Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) is enlisted to launch a battle against the malicious ghosts who have tormented his friends.
“Kuroneko” was a really enjoyable and entertaining ghost effort. One of its better parts is the technical work from Shindo throughout here, starting with the incredibly strong and brutal opening. Showcasing nothing at all, done totally in long, silent takes and focusing not on the act itself but the crazed animalistic expressions of the troops as they go about raping the girls. It sets a perfect tone for the film and the rampage later. There’s also a lot to like from this one’s visual images, which are best displayed by the eerie and almost ghostly journey through the forest. The setting is amazingly creepy on its own and the scenes of the white-dressed woman almost float through the scenery while the horseman struggles to follow behind, even losing her in the trees at one point. His later monologue in their house, where the background turns into a ghostly forest superimposed over it as he recounts his story makes for an impressive visual, especially with the cat-like behavior slyly integrated into the evening.
The later scenes of the ghost’s rampages are some of the film’s best moments. This starts immediately after they’re turned into ghosts when the duped samurais are lead into the house time and again to meet their deaths by the ghosts. The fight scene from the one smart enough to avoid the ghosts originally, with them both whipping around the air and the rapid slashing at them is a really great way to up the fun here. Even the main one where Gintoki discovers that he knows who they are and resort to a relentless series of mind-games to torment him is just a blast. With the different ways that they go about it, with the dancing and different rituals that are presented, it becomes quite expressive and incredibly enjoyable. There’s also the fantastic finale where Yone and Shige finally reveal their true form and take their full revenge that captures the perfect balance of existential torment and supernatural action being a particular highlight.
There wasn’t much wrong with “Kuroneko.” Frankly, the most irritating factor is that this one ends up doing the same thing throughout the middle section without any difference. Shige shows up in distress, leads the unwary party back to the house while engaging in a tea-ceremony with Yone before the untimely end, which happens to each of the men. It doesn’t change the formula at all, and while one of them discovers the treachery and at least fights back, there’s still nothing new that develops. The other part of this that stands out is the extremely slow pace to it. There are some really long scenes that don’t really serve much, beyond giving it some length. The near-incessant talking becomes a little too much to bear at certain points, especially the eternally-agonizing revelation scene where Yone and Shige reveal their intentions. It just drags on forever, lasting twice as long as it should’ve been as it just talks through everything.
While not the fastest-moving film around, there’s still plenty of stuff to like about “Kuroneko” making it one of the top entries in this genre around. Give it a shot if you’re into that kind of film or a fan of Asian horror cinema or looking for the origins of the Asian ghost genre, though those who can’t enjoy the films should seek elsewhere.