Saturday, July 6, 2013

Kuroneko (1968)

WHO: Kaneto Shindo, who died in May 2012 at the age of 100, wrote and directed this.

WHAT: I once tweeted that this film is a missing link between Kenji Mizoguchi's classic samurai-era-set ghost story Ugetsu from 1953, and Nobuhiko Obayashi's feline-themed haunted house phantasmagoria Hausu from 1977. It's the kind of statement that probably deserves more qualification than 140 characters of text can provide. In truth there's a rich tradition of ghost stories in Japanese cinema, and these three films happen to be three of the perhaps four or five best-known examples of this tradition internationally (as evidenced- and perpetuated- by their appearance on DVDs by both Criterion in the US and Masters of Cinema in the UK). I'm not well-exposed enough to Japan's kaidan-eiga history to really say whether Ugetsu directly influenced Kuroneko or whether it in turn influenced Hausu, or whether instead any similarities between the films can be better explained within a broader cultural context of Japanese stories involving spirits and transformations. Although it feels worth pointing out that Shindo apprenticed under Mizoguchi before becoming a director himself, and that Hausu and Kuroneko were made at the same studio, Toho. If Obayashi and Shindo were not intentionally referencing or reacting to the prior films in this make-shift "trilogy" they were at least aware of them. Consequently, if you're a fan of Ugetsu or Hausu or, especially, both, you'll definitely want to see Kuroneko as well. The lighting effects alone distinguish it from the average chiller.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Pacific Film Archive at 8:30 PM

WHY: I hope it's not giving too much of the story away to say that Kuroneko involves shape-shifting between human and animal forms, a theme that recurs in a number of other Japanese films screening at the PFA and other venues in the coming months. No, I'm not speaking of Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog, which screens there next Saturday; that film only compares city dwellers to canines and doesn't imagine them as avatars of one another. But the titles in the Studio Ghibli season of anime includes quite a few animals who take human form, or vice versa; for instance tomorrow's raccoon-dog saga Pom Poko, next Sunday's story of a pilot under a spell to make him look like a pig, Porco Rosso, or next month's Howl's Moving Castle, a film filled with transformations, including the title character's avian tendencies.

Did you know that the director of Howl's Moving Castle was at one point not expected to be the revered Hayao Miyazaki at all, but a younger animation director named Mamoru Hosoda, best known for The Girl Who Leapt Through Time? Hosoda's newest film Wolf Children is another film with a shape-shifter theme, and it gets its San Francisco premiere July 28th and August 4th at the Japan Film Festival of San Francisco at New People Cinema. I'm not sure if any of the other films on this brand-new festival's program (which also includes Himizu by Sion Sono and Lesson of the Evil by Takeshi Miike) involves shape-shifting.

And though it doesn't seem into include any shape-shifting-themed films, and in fact falls outside my usual purview here at Hell On Frisco Bay, I might as well mention that the Sacramento Japanese Film Festival occurs from July 12-14 at that city's Crest Theatre. When your festival opens with the latest film by Masahiro Kobayashi, Haru's Journey starring Tatsuya Nakadai, and includes a retrospective screening of Mikio Naruse's masterful silent Every Night Dreams, you get my attention. I'm thinking about a little road trip...

HOW: Kuroneko screens in a 35mm print.


  1. Thanks for the tip on this one, Brian. After seeing this at PFA I can now add this to my top horror films of all time list. As to where it ranks on the list...

  2. Glad you made it, Adam! Have you seen Shindo's earlier film Onibaba? I actually like that one even better than Kuroneko.

    1. Funny you should mention Onibaba. After telling a few other film buffs that I saw Kuroneko they all said the same thing. Guess that will be next on my horror film cue. With so many people whose opinions I respect telling me to see Omnibaba, that it is even better than Kuroneko, I'm having trouble ridding myself of that troublesome element vital to any filmgoing experience called high expectations.