Shindo’s KURONEKO (1968)
Embossed with the same themes as Shindo’s masterful ONIBABA (1964), KURONEKO (1968) is another Japanese horror folktale. The film is staggeringly pretty and unsettling, well-worth seeking out (and a must for any fans of Japanese ghost stories) for the aesthetics alone.
The film starts with an act of savagery as mother and daughter-in-law are raped and murdered by passing samurai on their farm. Close-ups linger on the faces of the samurai as they watch one another in the fiendish acts of violence, leaving the women dead amongst the burnt ruins of their smallholding. The women return as vengeful spirits, taking their human forms to seduce samurai and drink their blood; becoming the famous spectres of ‘Rajo Gate’. This section of the film becomes somewhat repetitive, and it seems needless to loop very similar scenes together in this way. But this is a minor quibble.
Where KURONEKO’s screenplay really excels is when said mother/daughter-in-law’s long-lost son/husband – ‘Hachi’ – returns from battle a samurai and is tasked with finding out whether the rumours of the demons at ‘Rajo Gate’ are true. Shindo’s film then becomes a rather simple, if unquestionably powerful, tragedy as ‘Hachi’ confronts the spirits of his dead wife and mother.
Carnal desires are a focus of the film, with Hachi’s wife foregoing her life-after-death in order to spend a few days of physical pleasure with the husband she thought dead; whilst Nobuko Otowa’s undead mother character’s lust for revenge against samurai is so great as to force her to consider murdering her own son.
The theatrical visuals and set-design make much of the film seem like an expressionistic stage-play, with key set-pieces looking like symbolic dream (or nightmare sequences). It’s hard to think of many other films which have showcased the stunning contrasts of black and white so effectively. What’s more is that it’s not like Shindo was forced into his choice of black and white photography by technical or budget limitations – it was an explicit choice. It works fabulously, and I seriously couldn’t consider watching the film in colour which would paradoxically wash-out the eerie hue of the film.
The uncanny score, underwritten by a rasping drum, heighten the tempo of the film’s set-pieces to pull together a fantasy film which is as unforgettable as it is visually impressive.