Welcome to Criterion Discovery, the newest Feature added to Audiences Everywhere. Here at Audiences Everywhere our motto is “Curious and Teachable.” We love film, and we have a passion to learn and share as much as possible about the medium. The Criterion Collection is a renowned collection of classic, timeless, and influential films that to date has reached an astounding 738 entries. It’s a massive collection filled with endless opportunities for exploration and discovery. It’s a natural fit, and with this new column, we hope to apply the “Curious and Teachable” sentiment to The Criterion Collection.
I’ve been a collector of Criterion Blu-rays and DVDs for about four years now. After I was introduced and had my first Criterion shopping and purchasing experience, I was hooked. The library of films and mission statement was fascinating. They had released many films that instantly grabbed my interest, and they released them in the most comprehensive edition and packaging available, a collector’s dream. Many fans refer to Criterion editions as “film school in a box,” which is an accurate description of what is contained within each package.
My knowledge of the films included in The Criterion Collection, as a whole, is limited. Through the years I’ve amassed approximately 40-50 different Criterion editions, and I estimate that 75% of them remain sealed in their original packaging, lonely and unopened. With Criterion Discovery, and the help of my colleagues, I hope to eliminate the lack of knowledge and sealed packages by embracing the collection I’ve accumulated, watching as many Criterion films as possible, and sharing my thoughts as I experience something new with each and every film. Whether you are a Criterion newbie, casual viewer, or a collector with expert knowledge, we’ll have something for you. Please join us as we discover The Criterion Collection.
Kuroneko is a 1968 Japanese horror film based on a paranormal fable from director Kaneto Shindô. Kuroneko translated is “Black Cat,” and the film’s original Japanese title is Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko or “Black Cat from the Grove.” The film was released by Criterion as spine #584 on October 18, 2011. To my knowledge, Criterion’s release is the first time the film was made available to a wide audience in the U.S.
The film is set in a feudal Japan addled by war. At the edge of a bamboo grove, a group of rogue samurai raid the home of Gintoki, a samurai off fighting in the war. Gintoki’s wife, Shige, and mother, Yone, are savagely murdered in the raid and the house is burnt to the ground. In the ashes of the fallen home a black cat emerges, licking the bodies of the deceased. Shige and Yone’s spirits are then allowed to linger in the natural world as the embodiment of a black cat monster, though they are able to use their former appearance as a disguise to lure samurai to their home in the bamboo grove, and exact their revenge. Scared that he is losing all of his men and fearing for his life, the local shogun directs the samurai leader to find someone to dispose of the women. The leader finds and employs a returning war hero to hunt them down.
For the entirety of the film there are only a handful of instances of horror, the most effective of which unleash a slow burn of suspense and tension. The moments leading up to each encounter are filled with dread and uncertainty. Shige innocently leads solitary samurai through the bamboo grove to their secluded home, with the promise of food and a place to rest. There they seduce the men and lure them into a position where they can tear at their throats with their demon cat claws. Terrifying.
The film surprisingly blends an element of romance with the horror near the end. It lulls the viewer into a false sense of security as a romantic plot takes shape, involving the spirit of Shige and the hero, before presenting the final and most disturbing moments when we, like the hero, are most vulnerable. The final images are as chilling as the initial crimes committed against the two women; an unease lingers as the fate of the two spirits and the hero is decided.
The transfer and restoration of the film presented is impeccable. Any sign of previous damage, scratches, or imperfections in the print is magically wiped away. The black and white print shines on the screen and the quality of the transfer is highlighted exponentially by the film’s cinematography. Effective lighting and shadows aid to the atmospheric horror elements and create a picturesque visual presentation.
There are a few series of shots in particular that stand out. First, as a samurai (who ends up being the first victim) rides on horseback wearily through the night, a lighted tower of the gate at the edge of the grove is framed to the left as the samurai is framed to the far right, with nothing but the black of night in between. The lighting on the samurai makes him appear as supernatural as the spirit that is pursuing him. His body begins to glow and he resembles a formless and faceless rider. The camera then cuts to a black cat, before cutting to an isolated framing of the samurai. In this frame, the lighting on the samurai is muted from the previous image, and we see the spirit of the daughter somersault over the mounted samurai. The woman then makes her presence known to the samurai, and the dread starts to sink in.
In a second series of shots, another samurai manages to confront the spirit of the daughter without her killing him immediately. As he attempts to fight her, she floats and glides around the stalks of bamboo, effortlessly dodging his blows, and climbing out of his reach, before pouncing down like her black cat embodiment and slashing at his throat from behind. The camera deftly follows her movements and rapid cuts accentuate her quickness. These stunts and the use of slow motion are reminiscent of the gliding and tree running scenes in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which makes me to wonder if Lee drew any inspiration from Shindô and Kuroneko.
In addition to the new restoration, the Criterion edition also includes a one hour video interview with Kaneto Shindô by the Director’s Guild of Japan, a video interview with film critic Tadao Sato, plus a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Maitland McDonagh, and an excerpt from film scholar Joan Mellen’s 1972 interview with Shindô. The video interview with Sato and essay from McDonagh are especially enlightening. Sato discusses several insider details about the making of the film, themes, and actors involved, and McDonagh provides a well-written examination of Kuroneko’s place in Japanese film history.
Kuroneko is a worthy entry into The Criterion Collection. It is a rare film restored to its original greatness, while also managing to be an effective piece of J-horror. The packaging is exceptional, as the lenticular cover art depicting Yone’s floating spirit is one of my very favorite Criterion covers. The film can appeal to horror, classic, and Japanese film fans alike.
Criterion Grade: A
Film Grade: B+