In much the way that American filmmakers have traditionally turned to the gunslingers of the old west to analyse and poeticise the nation’s sense of self, Japanese cinema has long drawn on tales of the samurai as a means of exploring where the country has been and where it is today. Naturally, the conclusions drawn aren’t always so flattering, especially in the decades following World War II when tragic and grisly works like Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri and Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood depicted a cruel and arrogant side to the samurai that was omitted from the more romanticised interpretations of imperialist propaganda. In a wave of films offering cynical alternatives to the mighty samurai archetype favoured by wartime nationalists, few presented a more ruthless rebuttal of the old myths of loyalty and honour than Kaneto Shindo’s exquisite 1968 ghost story Kuroneko.
Like his mentor Kenji Mizoguchi, Shindo uses female perspectives to reveal the devastating repercussions of the male ego run amok. Set in war-torn Heian Japan, Kuroneko’s wordless opening sees a group of ragged soldiers descend upon the modest home of Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi). The men rape and murder the women, set their house on fire and stroll back into the wilderness with an indifference which suggests that such atrocities are all part of a day’s work. Through demonic intervention, the women are offered a chance at vengeance, returning from the grave as deadly cat women duty-bound to drink the blood of any samurai unlucky enough to pass their way.
The first samurai seen falling into their trap looks at first glance to be of a nobler ilk than the unkempt men who attacked Yone and Shige. This well-dressed, slightly tipsy man encounters a meek-mannered Shige one night at the Rajomon gate. Feigning concern over bandits in the area, Shige asks the man to accompany her home and the chivalrous officer is all too happy to oblige. “Such a fine samurai could not be a bandit,” Shige coyly comments, though she clearly knows better. Sure enough, after Shige’s gallant escort arrives at their house, he drunkenly brags about the depraved, unchecked exploits of his men: “Fighting allows us to eat our fill and have whatever we desire. We samurai can take whatever we want!”
The superficiality of this esteemed caste’s authoritative public image is confirmed in a later scene when Shige’s peasant husband Hachi, who was forced to leave their home and fight in the war, is promoted to the status of samurai. Though the dirty, dishevelled Hachi initially draws the titters of the subservient women in the house of governor Raiko, a quick wash is all that’s needed to have him looking just as handsome and respectable as his distinguished peers.
Raiko himself — a gloriously moustached model of masculinity — buys into the samurai’s honourable reputation regardless. “Samurai fight so nobles and peasants can live free from worry,” he rages as the cat women’s victims pile up, “How can anyone hate us?” When Hachi points out that samurai warfare often forces farmers to flee their land and starve to death, Raiko’s dismissive response betrays a convenient pivot to a less charitable worldview (“The weak always starve”). In this self-serving display of mental gymnastics, Kuroneko channels the hypocrisy of both the samurai and the more recent militaristic authorities who drew discriminately from the samurai codes of chivalry and self-sacrifice when they were mobilising the nation for war.
The Freud-indebted Shindo masterfully connects the masculine pride of these imperialist leaders with the male libido. Through its set-pieces of seduction in the supernatural abode of the resurrected Yone and Shige, Kuroneko suggests that conquering countries and trying to score with a vengeful cat person are simply two examples of men following their dicks — neither of which end well. With echoes of Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 horror film Cat People, the women’s cannibalistic rituals are violently sexual acts that turn the tables on predatory men and the oppressive hierarchy they represent.
But before Shindo lets viewers revel too long in this macabre fantasy of retribution, the drama is complicated by the homecoming of Hachi, who is regretfully charged with the task of slaying the ghosts of his wife and mother. From here, there is a shift in perspective to observe the deteriorating mindset of this conflicted warrior. After a strange and solemn family reunion, the film’s previous sequences of seduction and death are countered by romantic scenes of escalating passion (tinged, albeit, with grief and uncertainty) as Hachi and Shige rediscover each other’s bodies after years of separation. Love, however, does not conquer all, since even this short-lived period of pleasure leads to further tragic repercussions, bringing the story into increasingly unhinged territory while Hachi’s contradicting duties as a samurai, husband and son drive him to madness. Like any persistent ghost, the sorrow that courses through Kuroneko is one that refuses to die, lingering past the film’s haunting, enigmatic finale.
It is through Kuroneko’s fantastical visuals that Shindo also denies his audience the privilege of confining this suffering to the distant past, granting a timeless sense of cosmic inevitability to the events. Some early lines from one of Yone and Shige’s prospective victims paints an apocalyptic picture of nature’s might (“Hail fell this summer. Then it suddenly grew so hot that birds fell from the sky.”), and the film’s spellbinding imagery confirms this suggestion of unseen forces that are bigger than any man. The cat women’s shadowy residence practically transforms at will, sometimes filling up with an ominous fog or disappearing altogether. The surrounding bamboo grove, which seems to intrude evermore upon the mansion, is shot with an erotic mystery that suggests even nature is partaking in the seduction of each ill-fated samurai. When Hachi rides home from some dismal warzone, the abnormally huge sun that looms behind him is like something out of Masaki Kobayashi’s visually stunning 1964 anthology film Kwaidan.
Like that sumptuous collection of ghost stories, Kuroneko’s otherworldly visuals evoke a reality shaped by great and sinister powers, and a world where fate will always scupper the impudent plans of hubristic men. It is a work that evokes destructive cycles of violence and despair that are perpetuated by man’s futile quest for glory and possibly doomed to be repeated so long as human nature remains unchanged. It’s not the most optimistic of conclusions to reach, but perhaps this mournful picture is just the brutal work of cultural reappraisal that a nation needs in the wake of a fallen empire.