Let’s be honest, the movies I’ve chosen for this year’s Countdown to Halloween may have been fun, but they haven’t exactly been the highest quality. They’ve been B-movies at best, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Kuroneko (1968) makes up for this… and then some. Not only does it have prestige, being foreign and “artsy,” but it is deeply affecting and scary. It’s the best movie I’ve seen in a long time and I can’t recommend it highly enough!
Kuroneko opens with its most horrifying scene, and there’s nothing supernatural about it. 15 or 20 samurai enter the home of two women, where they proceed to rape and pillage, then casually leave and continue on their way. As we watch them disappear into the woods, smoke begins billowing from the front door of the house. The house eventually burns to the ground, leaving only the dead bodies of the two women lying in its charred ruins.
The movie then enters a strange phase where we aren’t sure what’s happening. As a samurai passes through Rajomon gate, a figure in white robes tumbles through the sky above him. He then encounters a young woman, who asks him to accompany her through the grove to her home. When he does, then goes inside for some sake, her mother does a mysterious dance and the young woman bites his neck and savagely kills him.
The cycle repeats several times with several different samurai. Finally, the plot takes a moment to establish the narrative as Raiko, the governor, acknowledges the body count and declares, “Are you going to allow this ghost to appear every night? Isn’t there anyone willing to kill this monster?” Enter Hachi, a crazed and fearless samurai who appears before the Raiko with the severed head of his enemy.
Hachi cleans up nicely and we learn he is the husband and son-in-law of the two women from the beginning of the movie. When he discovers their fate and stands in the remains of his burned home, he tells Raiko he will find and exterminate the monster. Raiko is thrilled, promising him as his reward any woman he wants. He’s the next samurai to be lured into the home of the ghosts and he notices a striking resemblance to his dead wife and mother-in-law.
Here, Kuroneko becomes unexpectedly emotional. As Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) and Shige (Kiwako Taichi) fall in love, perhaps for a second time in their lives, their connection is palpable. He tells her, “I want to devour you. I want to chew you up and consume you.” They have repeated, passionate sex and while it’s wonderful for a while, she and her mother have made a vow that will not allow such an affair to last forever.
Kuroneko then becomes about sacrifice before entering briefly into a finale that any horror fan should enjoy. Even without its emotional baggage, it’s a gripping conclusion. With it, though, it’s revelatory. In its final moments, all its themes converge and we’re left with two images that could not be any more perfect. As it ended, I was left sitting in silence, gathering my thoughts and reconciling my feelings about not just the movie, but about love and life itself.
Written by Kaneto Shindo
Story by Kaneto Shindo
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Starring Kickiemon Nakamura, Nobuko Otowa, Kei Sato, Rokko Toura, Kiwako Taichi
Released Feb. 24, 1968 (Japan) RT 99 min.
Home Video Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Part of the Countdown to Halloween. Click here for a list of all the blogs participating. Each offers its own distinctive month long celebration of the chilling holiday we all love.