Sunday 28 September 2008

The Black Cat (1968)

In a time of war, a band of twenty or so obviously hungry soldiers come upon a house that has everything they might desire: food, water and women. Instead of asking nicely they just take, raping and murdering the mother and daughter occupants and burning the hut to the ground. Into the ashes comes a black cat, obviously something of meaning in Japanese superstition as well as our own, to shuffle around the two surprisingly well preserved bodies of the women. Next thing we know samurai travelling near the Rajomon Gate are enticed by the dead mother and daughter into a building that isn't there, only to have their throats torn out.

The tragedy of the story comes with the choice of warrior to fight the spirits. Raiko, the local samurai leader, needs a warrior to rid him of the vengeful ghosts and he finds one called Gintoki of the Grove. Unfortunately before he was conscripted into war by being dragged out of his fields, Gintoki was the son of Yone and the husband of Shige. He finds them but proves unable to kill them because of who they once were. Similarly they find it impossible to kill him, but such an easy solution is too easy. There are consequences to every action and all the players in this game have vows and obligations to live up to.

This film looks awesome, containing some of the best and most expressionistic lighting I've seen in some time. Some of it is so focused that the rest of the scene fades into nothingness and the players move from spotlight to spotlight. As this would suggest, the whole thing feels like a play, which makes it unsurprising that the male lead, Nakamura Kinnosuke was apparently a noted kabuki actor. Much of the action and movement is very ritualistic, with frequent accompaniment of a sonorous drum and the slow and stylised dancing of the mother.

While many scenes are starkly and blissfully shot, not just the expressionistic lighting but the panoramic movements and the transitions that turn this into a ritual dance, there's also some terrible editing going on too. Quite a few times a beautiful and rhythmic scene gets ripped apart to be replaced by something else. It happens often enough that I can almost believe it's deliberate but it feels too awkward for that. It feels wrong and out of place in such a carefully construced kabuki piece.

Director Kaneto Shindô had quite a career of films like this, mixing samurai with ghosts. In fact the film acclaimed as the greatest such mixture, 1964's Onibaba, was made by Shindô with Nobuko Otowa in the lead, making this something of a reunion, as Otowa plays Yone, the mother ghost. Shige is played by Kiwako Taichi, who was reasonably new at this point, The Black Cat being only her second film. She made quite a few more but her most renowned performance seems to be in a Tora-San movie, the 17th of a film series that went on to no less than 48, making it until recently the longest series of all time. And we thought there were enough Friday the 13th and Police Academy movies!

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