31 for 31: Kuroneko

For the whole month of October, our own Kevin Stairiker will be watching a horror movie a day and cataloging his findings in a new feature called “31 for 31.”


Right up front, I will confess that I don’t know very much about Japanese horror films. In past Octobers, I included “Perfect Blue” and “Onibaba,” Two very different films but certainly benchmarks of Japanese horror. “Kuroneko” is closer to “Onibaba” in tone and style, but it has its own thematic charm that is hard to resist, which is probably how it ended up in the Criterion Collection.

“Kuroneko” serves as a revenge-fantasy folktale set in medieval Japan. Of course, for revenge to happen, something terrible has to happen first. To the film’s credit, the opening five minutes, which involve a large group of samurai breaking into a house, raping the two women who live there and then burning their house down, are mercifully short and mostly off-screen. It’s horrific, and “Kuroneko” makes no bones about that.

The “revenge” aspect begins not long after that, as the ghosts of the mother and daughter pledge to kill any samurai they come across. The scenes of the fast-walking daughter seducing samurai, only to slash their jugulars apart like a cat, are surprisingly vicious for 1968. Much like Bela Lugosi in “White Zombie,” many of the reaction shots are relegated to the eyes of a black cat, who the ghostly women are clearly replicating in style and execution.

The tragedy of the film comes when Gintoki, a man who kills a rival and is rewarded with samurai-hood, is tasked with vanquishing the two spirits. It’s then revealed that this samurai is the husband and son-in-law of the daughter and mother, respectively.

As the Criterion essay about the film says, this is an “elegant nightmare.” The black and white nighttime shots are atmospheric and spooky in a way that would be hard to replicate today. The soundtrack, spare as it is, consists mostly of percussive instruments, creating an underlying tenseness to the whole film. The next Japanese horror movie I encounter will probably be a newer one, but the dread of “Kuroneko” will stay with me.

Death count: 8
Black cat appearances: 9
Disembodied heads: 1
Throats sliced: 3
Hours after the film ended that I realized the reason this film reminds me of “Onibaba” is because they have the same director, Kaneto Shindo: Too many

Total movie death count: 56
Watched via: Hulu
Worth the watch? Yes
Arbitrary rating: 4/5 human arms that turn into cat arms


31 for 31 viewing list

  1. Jeepers Creepers (2001)
  2. Cube (1997)
  3. White Zombie (1932)
  4. Demons (Dèmoni) (1985)
  5. Phantasm II (1988)
  6. Kuroneko (1968)
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Posted in Arts+Culture, Movies

Kevin Stairiker is a features writer for Fly. He is a graduate of Temple University and enjoys writing in third person. When he isn't writing, he's probably playing guitar for a litany of bands, reading comics or providing well-needed muscle at The Double Deuce.

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