Tonight in Seattle:  

Kuroneko

Kuroneko

Entertainment option for a bleak midwinter evening: a super-stylin' late-'60s Japanese samurai romance revenge melodrama... with spooky-ass ghosts. Specifically, Kaneto Shindo's 1968 horror triumph Kuroneko ("black cat"), a film that only recently enjoyed a proper American release but which has finally made its way to Seattle via SIFF Cinema, where it will play through 1/26. It really should not be missed.

B&W images of a peaceful, breeze-blown bamboo grove in the film's opening sequence hint at paranormal activity but convey a sense of serene calm... which comes to an abrupt halt with a scene of harrowing violence: We observe a rag-tag squad of nomadic samurai approach the humble house of Yone (Nobuko Otowa), whose son is away in another war-torn region. The hospitality of Yone and her son's wife Shige (Kiwako Taichi) is gratefully accepted, but isn't enough for the troops, who proceed to rape them both repeatedly, then mask the crimes by setting fire to the hut where their unconscious bodies lie. A black cat tiptoes through the ashes and rubble that remain, and the women are seemingly spirited away.

The corridors of medieval Rajomon Gate are then haunted by a ghost in the form of lovely Shige, who leads samurai, one by one, to an awesome house of horrors in the glade. There, seduced and drunk on sake, they meet their dark fates.

Yone's son Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), finally home from battle and newly honored as a chieftain's officer after executing an enemy of the state, is directed to eliminate whatever it is that's dwindling the local samurai population. He ends up at the spectral house, which vaguely resembles the home he left behind -- one possible difference being the out-of-nowhere luminescent mists that make the floor seem to fade (via one of many nifty old-school double-exposure tricks) into hilly forest earth. He falls hard for not-Shige, not fully aware of the nature of her existence... or of the shadowy deal that not-Shige and not-Yone have made with the malevolent spirits that held them.

"It's a samurai's world now," boasts a haughty officer early in the film, touching on the larger message Kuroneko wants to convey: government has a duty to protect its disenfranchised, but rulers' avarice and hubris often lead to failure in caring for their ruled. And director Shindo sends this bitter pill down with completely wackadoo visuals, an evocative score, swoon-worthy costumes, high-flying swordfight sequences, and stylistic influences from Noh theater (with its kabuki-esque dance and movement), creating a chilling, hypnotic, memorable, just plain fun film experience.

And it's presented in a new 35mm print, ahead of a Janus/Criterion DVD release, emboldening every glorious image -- including one of a severed human arm that transforms before our eyes into a raggedy cat's claw -- to entice and to haunt.

{Kuroneko screens in Seattle at SIFF Cinema 1/21 through 1/26.}

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