Fantasia 2010: KURONEKO Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
Fantasia 2010: KURONEKO Review
[Our thanks to Matthew Grinshpun for the following review.]

If you're lucky enough to be in Montreal, or to live in a town being visited by the touring 35mm copy of Shindo Kaneto's Kuroneko, you owe it to yourself to check out this brilliant work of sixties Japanese horror on the big screen. Though Janus, the company behind the sterling print, will almost certainly be releasing it on DVD and BluRay as part of the Criterion Collection, Kuroneko is a fundamentally cinematic film. From the menacing drumbeats at its opening to the final showdown at its end, it absorbs and envelops in a way that defies the limitations of small-screen viewing.

Beguiling in its simplicity, Kaneto's film tells a fairly traditional Japanese ghost story. A roving gang of corrupt samurai rape and murder a woman and her step-daughter, who return as ghosts to exact their vengeance on the hapless warriors who stumble upon their shack in the woods. The two trade roles in luring men with a mixture of hospitality and seduction, only to transform into a black cat and devour them. The whole arrangement is called into question, though, when the son and husband of the family returns home after three years of warfare as a freshly minted samurai hero.

The tale itself may be typical enough, but Kureneko is anything but traditional in its story-telling. From the get-go, the film's brutal, minimalist soundtrack lets us know that we're in for something very different. Remarkably restored in this print, the frenzied pulse of a bass drum checked by fleeting whispers of ambient sound would be chilling enough without the events on-screen, but the pairing of the two is masterful. When mother pounces, her screech rips through the film so suddenly and strongly that I half-expected the screen itself to come tearing off the wall.

But it's the stark visuals, in ultra-high contrast black and white, that bear the standard of Kaneto's modernism. The composition here is gorgeously minimal; rarely are there more than two principal characters or objects in the frame at a time. Camera movement is rare, slow, and graceful, playing out as a delicate choreography that is itself as spectral as the ghosts that are its subject.

More unusual is Kaneto's montage, which slices through time with a precision that recalls the revolutionary Russian directors who worked four decades before him. In horror, a genre where less is often more, it's surprising that so few filmmakers have adopted this break with realism. Kaneto spares us the mechanics of violence to exhibit their results. At one moment, the ghost is leaping at her victim. In the next: close-up on a bloodied corpse. For an audience used to the more naturalistic editing common to films of Kuroneko's time, the effect is jarring. There was some laughter in the cinema at my screening. The drastic cuts remain, however, a highly effective and economical way to craft terror.

Where other directors leave little to the imagination, Kaneto feels no need to fill in the cracks. It is in these tiny spaces, the interstices between shots that we are so often deceived into ignoring, that he grants us our freedom. Whether we laugh, cringe, or simply gaze in wonder, is our choice.

Review by Matthew Grinshpun


  • Kaneto Shindô
  • Kaneto Shindô
  • Kichiemon Nakamura
  • Nobuko Otowa
  • Kei Satô
  • Rokkô Toura
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Kaneto ShindôKichiemon NakamuraNobuko OtowaKei SatôRokkô TouraDramaFantasyHorror

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