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October 05, 2010


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Yabu no naka no kuroneko
Kaneto Shindo - 1968
Eureka! Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD

Just recently, I found out that Kaneto Shindo is the second oldest active filmmaker. Just a couple of years younger than that prolific late bloomer, Manoel de Oliveira, Shindo has made a new film, Post Card, scheduled to premiere later this month at the Tokyo International Film Festival. That Shindo had just completed his latest, and reportedly last film not only says something about his physical health but the fact that when younger directors have been forcibly retired, he still had a way of remaining commercially viable. For those reasons, Kaneto Shindo should probably get a major reevaluation of his work. Only a handful of films in Shindo's filmography are known to western cinephiles, with Onibaba, the title that is most famous. I might be proven wrong about this, but I think there has been a prejudice regarding some of Shindo's films based on the English language titles, The Lost Sex and Operation Negligee as examples, rather than examining the films themselves, by such school marmish cultural gatekeepers as Donald Richie and Joan Mellen. As more films slowly become available on DVD, one discovers more riches when the films are allowed to speak for themselves.

I first saw Onibaba on the giant screen of the New Yorker theater. The scene with the woman unable to remove the mask from her face was one of the most intense viewing experiences I've ever had. And yes, I saw the film because it was a certified classic, but anyone who knows me also knows that I'll take the time to see a good, and even not so good, horror movie. I suspect that some of the people who have seen Kuroneko would not be caught dead watching a kaibyo movie that was advertised as such. At least Doug Cummings of Masters of Cinema has no problem connecting Kuroneko with The Ghost Cat of Otoma Pond. I bring this up because even if one doesn't know, or even care, about the historical aspects of samurai era Japan, Kuroneko has enough genre elements to be enjoyed on a purely visceral level.

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On a tangential level, Kuroneko illustrates the Buddhist concept of hunger. The opening scene shows a group of fifteen foot soldiers emerging from a forest to drink water from an irrigation ditch surrounding a hut. The soldiers lower their heads into the water, the sound of them slurping amplified. One of the soldiers walks into the hut and discovers two women, Yone and her daughter-in-law, Shige. While the first soldier grabs food from a boiling pot, the other soldiers walk in and begin to pick at other available food, before putting their hands on the two women. While the rape of the women is mostly offscreen, Shindo cuts to close ups of two of the soldiers still eating, one with grains of rice scattered around his mouth and shirt. The visual suggestion is that the sex is as sloppy as the eating. The appearance of the soldiers suggest that they are of the lowest rank and act in the only way they know how to exert some modicum of power over those who are weaker than them. The women are left in the hut, which is set on fire. This opening scene sets up the rest of the film where distinction between the need for food and sex is minimal.

The women return as ghosts who appear at night, seeking revenge on unsuspecting samurai. Yone's son is introduced in a scene, fighting another man in a swampy area, with Shindo blurring the difference between men and animals, with the two soldiers hair like messy lion manes. The son, Gintoki, considered a hero for returning with the head of an enemy general, is assigned to kill the "monster" that has attacked several samurai. The rest of the film is about a family divided by simply by corporeality, but by their vows to others. While Yone and Shige have promised to suck the blood of their victims, Gintoki has promised his samurai chief to eliminate the "monster". The women have also promised not to reveal who or what they are. Shige and Gintoki reunite briefly for seven nights. At one point Gintoki tells Shige, whose vampiric character has been revealed, that she "is good enough to eat", and "I'll chew you up and make you part of me."

For those who require some kind of intellectual justification for watching any film, one can view Kuroneko as being part of the tradition of Bakeneko stories from Japan. There are also bits of Noh and Kabuki incorporated into the set designs and the acting. One could even spend time discussing the film as an examination of class in feudal Japan. But the real pleasure of Kuroneko is watching ghosts that can gracefully do slow motion leaps in the air, backward somersaults, and lunge at the necks of their victims.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 5, 2010 08:26 AM


very interesting. . .

Posted by: healy at October 6, 2010 11:46 PM