It seems somewhat serendipitous that my final horror film recommendation for the month is Kuroneko, the most recent film I viewed on FilmStruck. Because of that streaming service, I was able to watch perhaps one of the most beautiful horror movies ever made and be seduced by its ghostly visuals. It is also a fascinating take on the rape-revenge film, a genre that seems to exclusively be grounded in Western cinema.
Kuroneko, or Black Cat, is about grief, suffering, revenge, and love. The film takes place is war-torn feudal Japan where young men are sent off to battle and rogue samurai roam the land. Two women, a mother and her daughter-in-law, are raped and murdered by said rogue samurai. However, a black cat appears, and brings them back to life as vengeful spirits who vow to drink the blood of every samurai in existence. This gets a bit complicated, however, when their son and husband, Gintoki, becomes a samurai.
The cinematography in this film is chilling. Both women are clad in white, flowing robes which quite obviously emulate the form of a ghost. However, their costumes as contrasted against the dark, rigid bamboo grove make them ethereal. They are beacons in the night, figures that call out to unsuspecting samurai.
This film is also expertly choreographed. Every movement is deliberate, planned, controlled, which starkly contrasts against these brutal acts of violence by these ghosts. In realizing that every move is planned, it makes those acts of violence even more shocking and severe. Everything feels like a macabre dance, where the ghosts are leading their unsuspecting victims across a bloody dance floor.
Surprisingly, Kuroneko is very erotic, containing some of the most intimate and steamy sex scenes I’ve seen in a horror movie. Yes, this involves Gintoki having sex with his ghost wife. But the love and pure passion between man and ghost is so intense that you can’t help but feel a little sweaty. This eroticism between Gintoki and his ghost wife adds a layer to the film’s melancholy: while they are together in such a physical and carnal way, that will not bring her back to life and that will not keep him from being a samurai.
The eeriness and the eroticism creates a ghost story unlike one you’ve ever seen. It handles the nuance of vengeful ghosts, beings that don’t thrive merely for murder, but also are suffering themselves. It is one of the only ghost stories that depict the mental anguish of these spirits as they are caught between fulfilling their ghostly purpose and protecting a loved one. Kuroneko is a beautiful and eerie conception of a rape-revenge film that gives its women agency and power, while also creating a nuanced look at the typical vengeful ghost story.
Watch if you like: Japanese horror, samurai films, Akira Kurosawa, phenomenal cinematography, ghost stories