Japan-O-Ween: KURONEKO (1968)
*As always, please note this entry contains some light spoilers.*
On October 12, 2021, I watched KURONEKO. I blind bought it last year during a Criterion sale, but I was never in the correct mental place to watch it. I have quite a few classic Japanese horror films that I have blind bought and never viewed. This year I made the theme to my special October watch list Japanese 1960s and 1970s horror so I would once and for watch these long sealed films.
KURONEKO translates into "black cat" which is also an alternative title. The only thing I knew about it going in was that it was a supernatural rape revenge story.
While I generally avoid any movie with even the slightest inference of rape because it is wildly triggering for me, I felt it was important to at least try to watch this film. A sign of healing is when you are willing to engage your triggers and cope in a healthy way. In honor of Halloween and facing your fears, I decided to add movies I would have never before considered to my watch list.
KURONEKO exceeded and blew apart all of my expectations. While cherished as a horror film, I found myself in tears and emotional distress more than scared. I knew the rape would be triggering. I made it through. But, I did not expect the complex layers of deep grief to be the overwhelming theme of the movie. There were multiple times that I had to pause and walk away to collect myself before moving on to the next scene. Each of these times I paused were due to how difficult it was for me to swallow the overwhelming sadness and pain. Not only was this study of grief much more triggering that the rape theme, it destroyed me in a way for which I was not prepared. This was a different kind of horror. This was the emotional turmoil of hopelessness, which in itself is truly horrifying.
I promised myself I would keep these entries short. I will hit only a few more key points. This film was overwhelmingly emotional yet brutally unsentimental, which feels right for a Japanese movie. The sound design was incredible in its minimalism, and I will never hear the slow beating of a drum the same again. Each beat echoed the rising tension in my chest. It reminded me of how drums and silence play together in Kabuki theater to create tension.
The setting and story feel like the legend of Sleepy Hollow done Japanese. The social commentary is direct and heavy handed. Again, I appreciate that boldness, and it is done here without being longwinded or complicated.
While the story is predictable, that actually adds to the appeal. You are given a plot, and the journey is in how the characters navigate their feelings in the situation. The focus is not the supernatural horror itself. That being said, the first bloody neck kill by the ghosts was extremely satisfying and much needed after the silent cold gang rape of two women. The ending too, left me unsettled. Which do you believe more, what you see or what you feel?
I highly recommend KURONEKO. Though please note that if you're looking for more a traditional monster or jump scare movie, this is not for you. It is a slow burn of your heart.
There are few things more horrifying to me than feelings, and in that sense, plus the others I mentioned, KURONEKO delivers.
Below is a link to a lovely interview with its director Kaneto Shindo who is also responsible for ONIBABA. Another film I'll be watching this month.
KURONEKO is currently available for streaming on The Criterion Collection channel. They offer a free two week trial if you don't already subscribe and carry a majority of the films I'm covering this month.