A crumbling ruin. A mist-shrouded forest. A lone samurai making his way home late at night meets a seemingly defenseless young woman. So begins the horror of Kaneto Shindô’s tale of ghosts, vengeance, and the wrongs visited upon women by entitled men. Kuroneko is a film that feels older than it is. Shot in 1968, five years after Shindo’s more famous horror movie Onibaba, Kuroneko hearkens back to the more humanistic period pieces and sword-fighting films of the 1950s. Kuroneko is also one of my favorite films. And not just because it has cat demon ladies in it. Though, really, cat demon ladies should be an enormous draw for anyone. Cat demon ladies and ghost cats have been around long before Ju-On / The Grudge or even before Utagawa Kuniyoshi illustrated a sweet party of a lady, two cats dancing with handkerchiefs on their heads and a giant cat monster interrupted by some guy in 1835.

In fact, it’s a genre in theater, “neko-sodomono” (“drama dealing with a family dispute and a cat” or “Cat Troubles”), and most cat demon films can be traced back one way or another to stories like Yamata Kaiiki’s “The Nekomata Fire” (1708), in which a cat with two tails sets a samurai’s (probably haunted) house on fire, Tsururya Namboku IV’s play “Okazaki Ghost Cat / Traveling Alone To The 53 Stations” (1827), Kawatake Shinshichi II’s play, “The Chaos of the Ghost Cat of Arima” (1880) and before that into spooky ghost stories about cats who could appear as human beings. The 1840s kabuki play, “The History of the Stone Monument of the Demon Cat of Sagano,” was adapted for film in 1910. “Okazaki Ghost Cat” was made into a film in 1912. All of them have been adapted several times since.

Kuroneko begins on the outskirts of Kyoto during the Heian Era, almost as much in stillness as in silence.  It looks like a painting of a small house and an overgrown rice field. The grass sways in the wind, a group of ragged almost naked soldiers emerge from the woods in the background. Cut to the sounds of a cicada, horrible mouth shots and drinking noises. They enter the house of Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and Shige (Kawako Taichi). The women are poor. Everyone in those first ten minutes of the film are ragged and desperate. It reeks of poverty, but the kind of poverty caused by war. The women cannot work their farm, whether for reasons of safety or because Yone’s son (and Shige’s husband) Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) has been conscripted it’s hard to say. And by “conscripted,” I mean kidnapped and forced to fight the Emperor’s war against the indigenous people of Japan under real, historical personage Minamoto no Raiko (Kei Sato). The soldiers burst into Yone and Shige’s house, stealing their food and raping and killing the women before setting the house on fire. The family’s black cat comes home, crying. It sits with them as the house burns down.

The first dialog comes ten minutes into the film, as a mounted samurai asks a high-class lady lingering outside the Rashomon Gate after dark, “Who are you?”

The woman tells him she lives with her mother in a bamboo grove just outside town and she fears being attacked by bandits. Shige has returned from the dead with Yone to get revenge as demon cat ladies. The samurai accompanies her home and accepts her offer of a rest before he goes off to Raiko’s mansion. The samurai had been a farmer, but as he drinks, he tells the women, “Fighting allows us to eat our fill and have whatever we desire. We samurai can take whatever we want.”

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, from 'The 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road'
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, from ‘The Story of Nippondaemon and the Cat’

As the evening grows late, Yone withdraws, leaving the couple alone. The samurai is excited at the prospect of getting it on with such a stylish woman and never stops to consider that maybe he shouldn’t follow strangers into the woods, especially strangers living in eerily quiet and nearly empty fancy mansions. The men never consider that they could be in danger. I will give the former farmer from Kawachi that he is the first man to have his throat torn out by a demon cat lady in the film and so his personal safety might not have been on his mind. Shige (and later Yone) linger by Rashomon Gate at night. They lead samurai through the forest to their ghost mansion, tear out the men’s throats and leave the bodies in the woods. Despite knowing there is a cat demon in the woods, and that cat demons appear as women, the subsequent men still follow Shige to their deaths. Shige’s fourth victim is suspicious, but he enters the house hoping to have sex with the Heian cutie. The women leave their fifth victim at Rashomon Gate itself.

And it is when that victim is found that the Emperor begins to fear for his own safety. He orders a sweating Raiko to do something about it and Raiko decides to pass the unpleasant job along to his new retainer Hachi, now called, “Gintoki of the Grove,” a war hero and killer of Emishi General Kumasunehiko. (Kuroneko is unusual in actually depicting the Emishi and discussing exactly what the samurai were about). “Find the monster that’s been feasting on the necks of my samurai and exterminate it.” Surrounded by a bevy of beautiful courtly ladies, Raiko adds, “I’ll give you any woman you want.” He also gives Gintoki a fine house and fancy clothes, reminding him that chicks dig samurai. After he leaves Raiko’s mansion, Gintoki immediately returns to his home, only to discover it has burned down and his wife and mother are gone. So he begins to work the case. He seems less motivated by Raiko’s offer of beautiful ladies than by the belief that these killings are a problem and the recognition that if he doesn’t kill the cat, Raiko will kill him, which is pretty much where he was when he was conscripted the first time.

But while Gintoki is trapped, Raiko is angry at the very idea of defiance and at the Emperor humiliating him. This is a movie about arrogance and hubris, the arrogance of men who think they are untouchable, invulnerable and “take whatever we desire.” Raiko at first scoffs at the idea of a spirit attacking his samurai—at the idea of any kind of vulnerability. “Who cares about peasants or even considers them human? Women only dote on you because you are a samurai. What ghost would dare hate us?” And beyond daring, he doesn’t even understand why someone might hate samurai, saying, “But why would a cat hate samurai?” Kuroneko makes it pretty obvious why anyone would. And these cat demon ladies don’t just hate samurai. They don’t even swear revenge only on the samurai who killed them. They swear revenge on all samurai. Unfortunately, this becomes a problem for them when Gintoki comes a-calling.

Kuroneko deals a lot with sex and violence and their intersections. The film also distinguishes fairly clearly between them. It’s interesting how Shindo separates sex from rape and sex from death, even while so much of the film is so much about the intertwining of sexuality and violence. Men are promised women in exchange for killing and after killing, feel empowered to take women, sex and whatever else they want. A vengeful cat demon lady dances an excellent dance while another kills during sex. But the time that the sex is most explicit, most naked and truly eroticized is when Shige and Hachi sleep together. Shige is shown in a very sexualized context as she engages in consensual sex with samurai, who have walked home a beautiful, refined woman who they believe is impressed with their strength and power and unaware of their own vulnerability. For his part, Gintoki isn’t motivated by Raiko’s offer of women. When he meets the Cat Demon Ladies, Gintoki tells them repeatedly that they remind him of someone else.  And it is fairly clear that he knows who they are and suspects what they have become, what war has made them. And he uses his investigation as an excuse to see them again, not because he wants them or can take them, but because he misses his wife and his mother.

The rape scene at the beginning of Kuroneko is unusual and very powerful. Shindo doesn’t show the rape. Instead he focuses on the faces of the men, not as they rape Yone and Shige, but as they almost affectlessly wait their turn, just as they had waited their turn to drink at the creek. We never turn away from their humanity even as we never turn away from their guilt. Miguel Rodriguez invited me to discuss this film on the Horrible Imaginings Podcast and he mentioned that while the women become cats, these men were very doglike in how they drink, how they eat, and how they wait. This brings me to a point I wish I had brought up on the podcast about the depiction of rape and I’m sorry to bring it up in a piece that should be all about fun cat demon ladies and samurai waving their swords around at ghosts. But it’s one of those points that seems so obvious, that I took it for granted until I had another conversation where I said that the rape in some show or film is “upsetting” and a well-meaning gentleman explained to me, “Rape is upsetting.” Yes, rape is upsetting and on one hand I am glad that these gentlemen understand that and that they see me as enough of an individual person that it does not occur to them that they are telling a woman that rape is upsetting. But if you find yourself about to say that to a grown woman, please don’t. Rape is not something that women are reminded of only while watching movies.

But having this conversation repeatedly has made me realize that I should probably explicitly draw out what I had assumed was obvious: the depiction of a particular rape can be upsetting in its own way, separate from the inherently distressing nature of rape. So, yes, the gang rape in the beginning of Kuroneko is upsetting. But how Shindo chooses to depict that rape is not. We are not in the position of seeing Yone or Shige as the rapist does. Instead the camera stays almost fixed on the faces of the waiting men—the men who can still choose not to, the men who aren’t rapists yet, who could still try to prevent it—because the rape isn’t about the women, it’s about the men. It focuses blame on them while, again, refusing to look away from their humanity. Shindo avoids using rape as an opportunity to show titillating nudity while preserving the virtue of the naked women, demonstrating just how terrible and probably inhuman the villain is and motivating the hero. All while pretending to deplore rape and the rapists the whole time.

All of this was common in Japanese film in 1968. And it continues to be pretty common in film in general. But the rape in Kuroneko is not an excuse for nudity. And the rapists themselves are all too human which makes it that much more terrible and that much more resonant historically with the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army in Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and New Guinea during Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The men who raped and murdered Yone and Shige are all rewarded with positions and land by Raiko. And each is killed by the women. But the women’s target is not just these samurai, but all samurai. As Yone reminds Shige: “We vowed to kill samurai and drink their blood. We prayed to the spirits of heaven and earth to let us do so. If only he weren’t a samurai…”

If swearing to the God of Hell that they will kill and drink the blood of all samurai seems ambitious, the 10th Century really was the time to go about it. The samurai as a class were just being formed and I can see how Yone and Shige really felt this was an attainable goal. I really admire their ability to perceive the structural problems and identify the real enemy.  Note that what they want is not revenge a la I Spit On Your Grave, though it could easily be mistaken for it since the women lure the samurai who raped them to their deaths. Yone and Shige are looking for a broader revenge, a systematic revenge. In recognizing the impersonality, the systematic nature of what was done to them, the women target war itself as the enemy. They blame war for what happened to them and for what it does to the men who become samurai.  Yone and Shige are also destroyed by their revenge. Not just in becoming cat demon ladies, because way cool, but because Gintoki is sent to kill them and they are sworn to kill him. They are tragically put in the position of having to accept either damnation—and if you watch Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (1960) you’ll see that Japanese hell is pretty serious business—or killing Gintoki as they have all the other samurai. Shige bargains with the gods for one week with her husband and then accepts going to hell. Yone loses her killin’ arm to Gintoki. And at the very end of the film. Gintoki lies in the ashes of his family home as a cat calls.

As in so much of the rest of the world, the Sixties were a period of unrest and demonstrations in Japan. In 1960, there had been demonstrations and rioting in front of the Diet, the Japanese parliament, over the renewal of the bilateral security treaty between Japan and the United States. The US wanted to continue and expand the American military presence in Japan just six years after the US occupation of Japan had ended. At the time, so close to World War II and the horrors of the fascist Imperial state, many Japanese people had embraced Japan’s pacifist constitution, which allowed Japan only the small “self-defense force” so often seen in movies valiantly attempting to evacuate cities and towns during kaiju attacks and alien invasions. The anger and antiwar sentiment was so profound, the Japanese government (perhaps mendaciously) warned the US that they could not assure President Eisenhower’s safety during a visit planned to coincide with the treaty’s passage.

Instead, Ike stayed home and Americans worried about Japanese Communists and the Domino Effect. Many Japanese people were concerned about their fragile and relatively new democracy as the treaty was forced through the Diet. Japanese students feared being drawn into new wars. One young woman, Michiko Kanba, was killed during the 1960 Tokyo riot.  In 1965, writer Mokoto Oda and philosopher Shunsuke Tsurumi founded the Peace for Vietnam Committee (aka, Beheiren). In 1967, another student was killed during antiwar protests against then Prime Minister Sato’s visit to South Vietnam. In 1968, the same year Kuroneko was released, there were massive demonstrations at Tokyo University and protests at Tokyo’s Shinjuku station attempting to stop shipment of fuel to the US military in Japan.

Kuroneko is an unusual anti-war film for 1968 and not just because it’s in black and white. After all, the frenetic madness that is Koreyoshi Kurahara’s 1964 Black Sun is a black and white film. And Black Sun is very much a part of an international cinematic movement showing how rebellious and nihilistic the kids felt as a jazz crazy and insensitive young Japanese man gets it in his head to take a dying African-American GI (Chico Roland) on a road trip. But Kuroneko is a ghost story that seems much more of the immediate post-war era of the 1940s and 1950s with its humanistic, historical period pieces that are more oblique in their social messages. At the time, eerie cat demon ladies or no, Kuroneko must’ve seemed just a little bit square compared to something like Black Sun, and just not able to compete with the lurid Technicolor horror of even earlier films like Nakagawa’s Jigoku and Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (1959), but Kuroneko has an enduringly eerie quality. In Kuroneko, Shindo combines the grounded realism of his own post-war films, like Children of Hiroshima (1953) with a very stylized, formalist atmospheric horror straight out of Japanese traditional theater. Which is fitting enough, what with ghost stories being so central to the Japanese theater tradition. Serendipitously enough, Nakamura Kichiemon II, who plays Gintoki, is a kabuki performer and a National Living Treasure of Japan.

But while Nakamura does a great job, the women are the real center of the film. Nobuko Otowa’s performance as a cat demon lady is unsurpassed. I haven’t been able to discover of Otowa herself was trained in traditional theater, which has been male-dominated since respectable gentlemen discovered that they didn’t like to be mocked by disreputable (or really any) ladies and forbade women to perform kabuki. But Otowa’s dancing is remarkable as is her catlike performance. It’s easily equal to her eerie use of the demon mask in Onibaba. And despite all these elements of sex, gender, violence and war, if you are just looking for a movie with cat demon ladies, eerie atmosphere, beautiful cinematography and disheveled samurai fighting ghosts with the power of their swords, you really can’t do better than Kuroneko.