Kaneto Shindo is a Japanese director whose works I wasn’t familiar with until now. After viewing “Kuroneko,” I can see why he’s often held in the same regard as Kurosawa. In some ways, he’s almost an anti-Kurosawa: he never portrayed samurai in a positive way, as film critic Tadao Sato points out in one of the bonus features on this disc. While Kurosawa didn’t only make samurai films, he’s well-known for them, particularly among those who discovered the director through George Lucas.
Kurosawa’s samurai aren’t always perfect, but they’re usually noble warriors fighting for the right reasons. In contrast, Shindo opens “Kuroneko” (“Black Cat”) with a gang of ragged samurai who rape and murder an older woman and her adult daughter. A black cat helps them take revenge against the local samurai, who are lured to their doom one by one. However, the daughter’s husband is one of them: he performed a feat of daring during a battle and was made a samurai; the local governor instructs him to find and defeat the demon killing the men.
The story that unfolds mixes aspects of ballet, kabuki theater, whirlwind romance, and good old-fashioned throat ripping as Shindo weaves a tale full of haunting images and intense performances. It’s not hard to figure out where the story is going, and it pretty much hits the beats you expect during its third act, but Shindo’s style is captivating. I need to seek out more of his films.
This disc includes a pair of bonus features: an hour-long interview with Shindo and Sato’s 16-minute discussion of the film and its place within the context of Japanese culture. The interview with Shindo, which was conducted in the late 90s, only briefly mentions “Kuroneko,” but it’s an interesting overview of his career up to that point. I’m amazed that he’s still directing movies today, at the age of 99.
Sato’s piece digs deep into the film, noting the prevalence of animism among the Japanese and the influences that Shindo brought to the film, which included not only the ones I mentioned but also Kurosawa’s classic, “Rashomon.” (Note also the presence of Rashomon Gate in “Kuroneko.”) Sato’s discussion is complemented by the included booklet, which features an essay about the film and excerpts from an interview with Shindo published in 1972. As usual, Criterion does not disappoint in their presentation of a classic film.