the criterion collection have outdone themselves this halloween season with a pair of dvds that are absolute musts for fans of classic horror cinema. in this first of two reviews, i want to talk to you folks about their freshly-minted release of kaneto shindō's kuroneko (1968).
based on a japanese folk tale called the cat's revenge, this is an evocative and beautifully photographed tale of supernatural retribution during a period of civil war. it opens with a sedate, static shot of a solitary house on the edge of a farming village. winds ruffle the tall grasses and the only sound is that of insects. almost imperceptibly, a ragged band of starving samurai creep out of the surrounding forest. entering the house, they find the two women who live there in mid-meal. the samurai avail themselves of whatever food they want and then proceed to brutally rape and kill the women. shot from exaggerated angles in closeup, the samurai are transformed into leering, murderous grotesques. their bushidō code is a sham, as they are no more concerned with the sanctity of innocent lives as they are with stealing a few grains of rice. satiated, they leisurely wander back into the forest, as if this is all in a day's work. we return to the same static shot of the house and field, this time only to have the frame begin to fill with smoke, as the samurai have also set fire to the house. a scene that was, just moments ago, idyllic is now ghastly. it is a shocking burst of sexual violence, a sickening and brutal reminder of how quickly fortunes can turn, especially in a region beset by war and strife.
in the wake of this destruction, a black cat wanders through the wreckage of the burned house, lapping at the wounds of the dead women. it is a harbinger of the terrible fate that will soon be visited upon all samurai who have the misfortune to travel through this grove. the spirits of the dead women make an unholy pact with the god of evil to return as deadly spirits and feast upon the blood of every samurai in the world. in the guise of noblewomen, they haunt the rajomon gate, luring one samurai after another into their ritual of seduction, then complete destruction. this sequence of the film is captivating. the spirits are introduced to us as they come tumbling through the air, balletically flying about the heads of their intended victims. asking for escort through the grove, they lure one traveler after another to their home. once ensconced in their abode - a house adrift in a fog-shrouded, bamboo netherworld - they ply the samurai with sake and the promise of pleasures of the flesh. guard sufficiently lowered, the samurai soon have their throats ripped out and their bodies litter the countryside.
oh, how the tables have turned. we see this deadly ritual repeated several times in this beautifully edited section of the film, each time performed with a little more speed and ruthlessness, until things reach a fever pitch and the governor must send for a champion to dispatch these foul spirits.
that hero is gintoki of the grove, whom we first see locked in mortal combat of the david-and-goliath variety. proving his worth as the sole survivor of a bloody battle in the north, he is charged with dealing with the marauding spirits. upon visiting his home he discovers it burned to the ground. it turns out that the dead women are his mother and wife whom he hasn't seen since he was conscripted into service in the civil war, dragged straight from plowing his fields. he would seem to be the last honorable man in japan, having served bravely in the wars and also having avoided becoming bloated and arrogant like so many of the samurai the spirits have destroyed before him. he visits the rajomon gate and is soon met by the ghost of his dead wife. he escorts her home and partakes of their hospitality. stunned to find spirits that are so obviously his loved ones, he attempts to draw them out by telling them his story and how he fought desperately for years to return home. due to their vow to the god of the netherworld they cannot be as forthright. he does survive the night, however, something that cannot be said of his brethren. he returns to their home and the seduction ritual we have seen so many times begins once again, this time with an entirely different ending. it is he who wants to devour her. the young lovers are reunited and spend a week experiencing the joys they once knew.
the reunion is bittersweet, though, as his wife has broken her vow by letting him live. this gift of seven days comes with a high cost and in order to pledge her love in this way she has consigned herself to an eternity in hell. with his wife lost to him once again, a grief-stricken gintoki appeals to the governor to find someone else to finish the job. his mother has resumed killing, however, so the governor makes him an offer he can't refuse - destroy the spirit once and for all or be destroyed himself. it is now his turn to haunt the rajomon gate, waiting night after night until his mother returns. she eventually does, pleading to him to visit the home one last time to read her a sacred sutra, whereupon she will gladly descend into hell herself and put an end to this terrible cycle. all is not as it seems, however, and on the trek through the grove they do battle. gintoki takes the spirit's arm and returns to the governor with his vile trophy. gintoki then begins a week of ritual purification and prayer. throughout, he is taunted and tempted by his mother's vengeful spirit and finally deceived into letting the demon into this sacred space. there is a heated battle and she reclaims her arm.
he gives chase, returning to their home only to find it frustratingly empty. he stumbles impotently through the house, brandishing his sword at nothing and crying in anguish until he collapses, feverish and mad. the old homestead is now a funeral pyre that has claimed the entire family.
shindō is in wonderful form throughout, combining elements of traditional theatre, fable and expressionist cinema to deliver a beautiful, spare film that is an atmospheric marvel. on one level it is an eerie traditional tale of vengeful spirits, on another it is a thoughtful dissection of duty and love amidst the hypocrisy of traditional japanese social strata. shindō's agrarian background left him with little respect for the samurai class. throughout his body of work he is more than willing to dispel the myth of the samurai as noble and righteous. in his universe they are often corrupt, lustful and unjust and it is precisely these characteristics that lead to their undoing. setting the carnage amidst beautiful chiaroscuro lighting and nifty aerial trickery (it was shindō's first use of wire work), he has crafted one of the most lovely and nuanced ghost stories i have ever seen, ending up with a halloween treat that is as artistic as moralistic.
and, as usual, criterion ups the ante. their restoration has resulted in a transfer that is crisp and full of rich contrasts. the real treat, however, is the pair of interviews included in the special features. critic and film historian tadao sato has a brief segment in which he sheds some light on the cultural significance of japan's proclivity for cinematic ghosts and where kuroneko fits into the grand scheme of things. there is also a lengthy and wide-ranging discussion with shindō hosted by seijirō kōyama, shindō's assistant director on a number of films, including this one. it delves deeply into his ideology, working methods and personal history, offering the type of insight you don't often see in filmmaker interviews. particularly affecting, i thought, was the section in which the prolific shindō sought to do away with the notion that once you reach a certain point in your life you become peaceful, a contented and wise elder statesman. not so, says he. if you are vital you struggle to the end, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but always striving. i admire that a great deal. it is the inclusion of this type of material that always make criterion editions worth the investment - not just a beautiful film, well presented, but a richer understanding of the art and the artist. it's available in the states on dvd for the first time this week. i highly recommend you take advantage of this spooky delight this season.