Directed by Kaneto Shindo
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 99 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 Japanese
Release Date: October 18, 2011
Review Date: October 17, 2011
After Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) is conscripted into the samurai and goes off to fight in the North, his mother Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and wife Shige (Kiwako Taichi) are left alone on their farm to work it themselves. A rowdy band of samurais invade the home, rape the two women, and set fire to the house with their unconscious bodies inside. Curiously, the next morning, the bodies of the two assaulted women are intact amid the rubble with a black cat licking their wounds. Afterwards, a number of samurai warriors guarding the Rajomon Gate are lured by two tantalizing women into a bamboo forest where they’re at first feted and then ripped apart. Leader of the samurais Raiko Minamoto (Kei Sato) sends his bravest warrior Hachi, now dubbed Gintoki for his victories in the North, to investigate the monsters who are killing the samurais at the Gate. Hachi is startled to see that the two woman are spitting images of his wife and mother and eventually learns that they’re ghosts obeying their promise to an evil spirit to conquer and kill all samurais. He and Shige are still overpoweringly attracted to one another, but as she’s promised to kill all samurais and Hachi has promised Raiko that he’ll kill the monsters who are murdering his warriors, the couple finds they are both in impossible positions.
Kaneto Shindo’s writing and direction are first-rate with the story a deliciously devious variation on ancient stories of love affairs between ghosts and humans. Shindo’s stylized poetry in motion with the ghosts is often breathtaking, often having the ghosts flowing white kimono gowns billowing eerily against the black backgrounds of the forest where they dwell. Shindo’s startling visual style comes into play again and again during the movie (a breathless rider in relief against a huge glowing fireball sun, quick cuts of facial or body features changing before our eyes, the evocative way he uses smoke and fog throughout the movie, the final poignant shots in the snow) increasing the suggestive weirdness of the film’s tone. When Hachi and Shige begin their love affair anew, the erotic attraction between the two actors is palpable, and Shindo uses discreet nudity to increase the sensuality of the encounters. While there is some graphic violence, Shindo doesn’t wallow in the death scenes, and the film is all the better for his prudent use of shock effects.
Kichiemon Nakamura gives a magnificent performance as the heroic, confused, and tormented Hachi. Growing in confidence early on only to see his resolve seep away in his horror at the loss of his wife and mother, Nakamura is a striking presence throughout the film. No less effective are Kiwako Taichi as the wife and especially Nobuko Otowa as the mother, each giving tender and yet febrile portrayals as the wronged women with vengeance in their souls. Kei Sato gives a bravura performance as the boastful samurai leader who talks a brave game but who always seems to send underlings in to do the dirty work.
The film is presented in its theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio with 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. While black levels are not optimum, contrast is dialed in so expertly that the grayscale manages to be impressive in spite of the less than sterling levels of black. Whites are very crisp and impressive. Sharpness varies in the image though the soft-focused moments are likely due to improper focus in some of these widescreen close-ups than due to any faults with the transfer itself. Sharpness is certainly impressive enough to see the wires used in some of the high flying ghost work late in the movie, and close-ups reveal the actresses breathing and the pulses beating in their necks even though they're supposedly dead. There’s a bit of dirt especially early on, and the edges sometimes seem just a bit faded, but otherwise the image is not marred by age-related artifacts. The white subtitles are generally easy to read. The film has been divided into 27 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) audio track conveys the post-synched original soundtrack with the usual flatness and hard-edged Foley effects that these types of tracks usually sport. While hiss has been kept to a bare minimum, there is some light flutter that can be heard early in the film. Otherwise, this is a very typical mono track of its era nicely cleaned of any other age-related problems.
A 1998 interview with director Kaneto Shindo runs for 60 ½ minutes. In it, he discusses his early work in the film studio rinsing film reels and his later work as a screenwriter moving on from there to directing. He mentions many of his collaborators down through the years including Kurosawa and Mizoguchi as well as some of his most important films. Shot when the director was 86, he still insists there are stories he wants to make in this 1080i feature.
A video interview with critic Tadao Sato discusses how influences in the life of director Kaneto Shindo resonated in this film and in several of his others which are also discussed. The 17-minute interview is presented in 1080i.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs 2 ½ minutes in 1080p.
The enclosed 30-page booklet includes the chapter listing, the cast and crew lists, some pleasing stills and studio portraits, critic Maitland McDonagh’s complimentary take on the movie, and Shindo’s own comments on the film taken from a 1972 magazine interview.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
4/5 (not an average)
An unusual ghost story of feudal Japan, Kuroneko (which translated means “Black Cat,” an important symbol in the movie) deserves to be more widely known. This Criterion Blu-ray should make that an effortless process with good video and audio encodes and some interesting bonus features that allow us to get to know this important director much better. Recommended!