Hello and welcome to the latest edition of Criterion Cuts, the weekly column that explores the massive library of everyone’s favorite foreign/arthouse home video label, The Criterion Collection. I usually pick something from their offerings up on Hulu Plus for my weekly column, so playing along at home is fairly cheap and always awesome.
This week I ended up picking another horror movie, so with this and last week’s Sisters I might as well go for broke and make October a five week odyssey of some of the horror offerings Criterion has. Admittedly, it’s not a ton, but it’s plenty to fill up a month of horror movies. Also of note, today’s movie technically doesn’t release on home video until the 18th of October, while it’s been on Hulu for several weeks if not months. It’s another cool benefit of their streaming offerings–you get some movies way before you can even buy them. It’s pretty great.
Anyway, that’s more preamble than I usually have, so let’s cut to the chase!
A band of samurai, seemingly exhausted and on their way home from battle, stumble across a modest hut in the middle of nowhere. The group help themselves to the water, the food, and the two occupants–the young Shige and her mother-in-law Yone. The samurai leave the women dead and the house on fire, nothing left but a black cat to lick its dead masters.
Some time later a lone samurai at night walks through the Rajomon Gate, heading into the darkness of a surreal minimalist countryside. At the edge of the forest he sees a ghostly white woman (bearing a striking resemblance to Shige, though transformed from a plain woman to a picture of traditional Japanese femininity) wrapped in a kimono so white that it gives off its own ethereal light. She identifies him as one of the warriors of the lord Raiko and asks his help to take her home, supposedly frightened by the night.
She leads the samurai to her home, a giant palace of doors and hallways, silent save for the woman and her mother-in-law, who appears to be Yone, who invites the samurai in for saki. They have a discussion. The samurai notices that this was where a hut once stood, the women recount a story of the elder’s son and the younger’s husband, a young man plucked from the fields to serve as a conscript in war. The women remain a mystery, but strange things begin to happen. The older woman’s hair twitches like a cat, the younger’s hand seems for a moment to be a withered claw when the samurai sees it, only to disappear back to her glowing beauty just as quickly. Faces in reflections of water basins seem distorted in some subtle, horrible way.
Soon the samurai, now drunk, begins to make advances on Shige. Shige seems to welcome his advances, playing coy and slowly letting him overtake her as Yone dances for their joint entertainment. When the samurai begins to kiss Shige, though, she responds by leaping on him and tearing out his throat with her teeth, drinking his blood. This is repeated for us over and over, and the picture becomes clear. These women, whatever they are, are devoted to luring away samurai to their brutal deaths.
Such is the setup of Kuroneko, the 1968 horror film from Kaneto Shindo. What would serve as a simple ghost story, however, quickly becomes more complicated when the rumor of the two women’s path of destruction catches the attention of the samurai lord Raiko. He is determined to find a samurai who is able to hunt down and destroy the two women, and we’re quickly introduced to one–Gintoki, a farm boy turned samurai who became famous for slaying a famous warrior in battle, a young man who seems in many ways far too naive to be fighting anyone.
If you’ve been following along so far you know where this is headed. Gintoki is sent to slay the two women, only to discover that are (or at least resemble) the mother and wife he left behind when he was drafted into Raiko’s army. The two women seem disturbed by his presence, denying his relation to them as mere coincidence, but not killing him when he stays the night with them and begins to kindle (rekindle?) a relationship with Shige while struggling with his duty to destroy the killers of so many valuable men.
The movie plays out withthe dreamlike logic of the folklore that undoubtedly inspired it, with minimal sets that evoke the unreality of expressionist cinema without losing the grounding of the real world. This is a world with one foot in reality and one foot in magic, the mansion that houses our two ghosts a maze of gauzy draperies and endlessly repeated door frames. It is a place of secrets, where the women drift behind transparent walls, as alluring and sensual as it is dangerous. The home of sirens, the film pulls no punches in portraying the allure of these two beautiful women and how deftly they lure in their prey. They are avatars of death, shrouded in traditional funeral white, in a world of black on black, sets turned into giant ink blots that fill the screen.
But in many ways, this story has another important element, as it serves as one of the first templates for the vengeful spirit story in Japanese cinema, the now-common horror trope about pale-faced, dark-haired spirits wronged in life setting out for vengeance or simple wrath (see Ringu, Ju-on, or the other many many examples of modern J-horror), often women or girls or children, often portrayed as equally striking and horrible. Here it feels fresh and immediate, by making them in many ways the characters we’ve followed from the beginning, though they both deny throughout the story that they are the two women we saw killed in the opening.
What starts as a story of vengeance in many ways unfolds as all vengeance stories do, heading into the murky waters of regret and of possibilities rejected and redemption thrown away. Gintoki tries his best to explain away the ghosts to Raiko, saying that they’ve gone and for a time succeeding as the women no longer kill passing samurai while Gintoki stays under their roof. But the denial of whatever dark, dimly understood magic has brought them back has its own price which becomes more apparent as the story unfolds and Gintoki finds himself losing everything dear to him for a second time.
What makes Kuroneko so interesting isn’t its scares, of which there are few, but the sense with which it grounds this human drama so firmly in a supernatural that seems as inscrutable and unavoidable as loss due to time or fate that it pervades the brief moments of happiness with dread. These are not the women that he knew and loved, and he is not the young man plucked from the fields to fight so many years ago, and their efforts to recapture that lead everyone to the point of destruction. It is horrifying, but emotionally more than viscerally. And at its core, it cares more about its story and its sadness than any sort of scare.
As horror movies go, Kuroneko is never going to rate highly with the thrill seekers or gore fiends. But as a ghost story, the subtlety and beauty of its story fit in perfectly with the Halloween aesthetic, of a world slowly dying and of lives drifting through it, driven by loss, grasping at one another in an impossible dream of salvation.