THE BLACK CAT (YABU NO NAKA NO KURANEKO) (1968, directed by Kaneto Shindô, 99 minutes, Japan)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Yesterday, the Inquirer reported yet another story of a soldier who had committed suicide after returning from the war. The idea of a soldier being haunted by the things he has seen in battle is an ancient one, and the story gets a mesmerizing telling in director Kaneto Shindô’s 1968 film The Black Cat. The classic ghost story has a free screening tonight at The Bellevue, as part of a weekly six-film series presented by Japanese culture impresario Eric Bresler and the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.
Set in the 11th century, the film opens with a woman and her daughter-in-law (Nobuko Otowa and Niwako Taichi) being descended upon in their humble hut by a squadron of roaming samurai. The women are raped and murdered, with their hut set fire afterward to hide the evidence. As the hut smolders around the women’s corpses, a black cat begins licking the blood from their slashed throats, giving form to their avenging spirits. Soon after, their veiled images begin leading soldiers to a beautiful little home in the forest, where they will be seduced and killed.
Shot in crisp, silvery black and white, The Black Cat resembles Kaneto Shindô’s hit from four years earlier, Onibaba, which also featured a pair of murderous women. As in Onibaba, Shindô creates an unforgettable dreamscape as the camera tracks through the horizon-less high grass and the fog-filled bamboo forest. But in Onibaba, it is the women taken to task for killing the samurai; here, the women’s spirits are shown to be righteous in revenge, with the samurai being punished for the glories they seek in war.
In recent reviews of The Black Cat‘s revival, critics have compared it to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s rediscovered 1977 horror film, Hausu. Although both represent Japan’s long tradition of haunted cat tales, Hausu’s manic energy and garish special effects are nowhere to be seen here. Instead, The Black Cat has a dreamy elegance and ritualized beauty all its own, with it slow-motion images of the women’s spirits spinning and floating through the blackness. Enriching its beautiful scares is Shindô’s underlying thesis on violence: A soldier may have the power to unleash mayhem, but once he does, it is a vicious feline with a mind of its own.