It's a traditional Japanese ghost story and the most beautiful horror movie I've ever seen. It's also been released on DVD as part of Eureka's Masters of Cinema series. Quite right too.
The story's set during the Era of Warring States, i.e. the 16th or late 15th century. We begin with barbarians with swords finding a farm. Their first act is to drink from a ditch. After that, they break into the farmhouse, gang-rape and murder everyone inside and finally burn the house to the ground.
They do this because they're samurai. There's no other reason. This is a world in which men with swords can do whatever they want and it doesn't occur to anyone to question the morality of this. Later in the film, when a samurai is told that the ghosts are killing samurai because they hate them, he regards this explanation as absurd because surely he and his fellows are loved by everyone! They're strong and cool! They fight to protect people! Mind you, his definition of "people" excludes farmers, because they're poor and no one cares whether a peasant lives or dies. "Who'd think a farmer was a human being?"
Well, those dead women certainly aren't human any more. They'll walk and talk, but they've also become floaty butterfly-like beings who glow in the darkness and perform acrobatics so effortlessly that to see them do it is to feel that you're dreaming. They'll somersault like an Olympic gymnast, but without having to take off or land. They'll also do Noh dance routines that look like tai chi. Furthermore they're killing samurai, which is clearly a public-spirited act of philanthopy and the only shame was that this wasn't a more popular pastime among the peasants in those days. What the hell are they? Ghosts? Vampires? Cat spirits? I've seen it claimed that they're onryo, while the DVD subtitles call them "spectres", "monsters" and so on, but the word I kept hearing in the film itself is "yokai".
As for the plot, this involves Kichiemon Nakamura, who's the husband of one of these women and the son of the other. He's a samurai now, but he didn't choose to be. He got press-ganged. (I was half-expecting him to turn out to be one of the rapists, but that would have made this a very different film.) Now, three years later, he's done pretty well for himself with his sword and finds himself entrusted with some unwelcome responsibilities. They're samurai-killing cat yokai. He's a samurai. Our heroes are going to have to make choices.
Everyone keeps comparing this film with Onibaba, which is unsurprising. Onibaba has no supernatural elements and far more nudity, but they're both angry, atmospheric black-and-white Kaneto Shindo movies about a samurai-killing mother and daughter set in the same historical era. Onibaba of course would be the greatest hit of Shindo's staggering career. He followed it up with three erotic dramas that flopped at the box office, but then came back with this companion piece to his earlier triumph.
However at the same time, the films feel very different. I think I prefer Kuroneko. Onibaba's more visceral, but I ended up watching it in fast-forward and I didn't feel I'd missed anything. (One day I'll give it another go.) Kuroneko I think is more casually accessible. Ghost stories are cool and Shindo's created the most beautiful one I've ever seen, with yokai visuals that are mesmerising. It's dreamlike. It evokes the hypnotic, ethereal world of a Japanese folk tale and for the most part is allusive rather than explicit, with the gang rape for instance being implied rather than shown, but it's also capable of showing someone having their throat bitten out. It also has more pace than Onibaba and a little nudity.
Shindo was strongly left-wing and he's put his politics in these films, which is what gives them their force. He's vicious in his portrayal of the two-faced Kei Sato, for instance, who seems to regard the world as his personal property and everyone in it who doesn't carry a sword as either effete or sub-human. Given a tricky job to do, he fobs it off on Nakamura and of course wouldn't care if told that he was ordering a man to kill his own wife and mother. Note also the way in which we see the peasants fall on the murdered samurai, seeing them as nothing but dead meat wrapped in loot.
The finale's not what I'd expected. However it's my fault that I was wrong-footed and I think on a rewatch, I'd be better able to appreciate how the characters' choices were going to lead to that outcome. However I do think Kichiemon Nakamura knows what he's doing when he lets in Nobuko Otowa, even though a few minutes later he seems surprised.
Nobuko Otowa was Shindo's wife, by the way. However she also had a 134-film career that spanned five decades and in 1995 she posthumously won the Best Supporting Actress award at the 19th Japan Academy Prize, having been diagnosed during production with liver cancer. Incidentally "Kuroneko" means "Black Cat", but the full Japanese title translates as "The Black Cat in the Grove".
I thought this film was great. Obviously it's a "great film" in the sense that film critics will go apeshit over it, but it's also great in the sense that it's spooky, amazing to look at and has women biting out samurai throats. It has a surprising musical score and rightly award-winning cinematography. I love the way its yokai have to obey the rules of folk tales. I love the politically inspired anger with which it's putting the boot into its samurai. It has a strong story. Oh, and Kiwako Taichi is hot. I think I'll be buying the DVD, possibly multiple copies to give as Christmas presents.
Rapist: "You seem familiar. Have we met?"