The enhanced Mayhem screening of the Japanese classic is an interesting reinterpretation of the film.
Along with director Kaneto Shindo‘s earlier horror story Onibaba, Kuroneko was one of the earliest Japanese horror films to gain an international reputation, but in subsequent years has become somewhat harder to see than that film or other pioneering titles like Kwaidan, without TV screenings, a decent home video release or even many retrospective screenings. It was, for many years, a film only known to all but the most completist Japanese cinema academics through evocative and unsettling stills in horror movie books. Thankfully, recent years have been rather kinder to the film, with restored and remastered Blu-rays introducing it to a whole new audience. It might be true to say, however, that for many people this remained an unknown quantity – certainly, if I had to make a guess at how many people at the Mayhem Film Festival screening had seen the film before, then I’d say that we were in a very small minority.
A quick word on Mayhem’s retrospective screenings. Every year, the festival shows a handful of older movies, perhaps aware that the general audience for the event is younger that the organisers and the fact that classic films of the past, despite being arguably more available than ever before, are often not being seen by that younger audience. We only have to look at sites like Letterboxd or IMDb to see how Millenials and Gen Z’ers are often not looking beyond the last ten years – and certainly not back into the 20th century. In a world where there is supposedly infinite choice, those choices often tend to be more limited. There is something to be said for curated screening in the way TV used to be – when you had just three channels, you were more likely to watch a wider variety of content than people do now, when – understandably – they pick the familiar and the sort of thing that they probably expect to enjoy. In that sense, film festivals are arguable the last gasp of curated events – at least, that’s true of events like Mayhem, which show a smaller but carefully picked selection, as opposed to the events that simply hoover up everything available. Mayhem has, over the years, picked some unexpected older movies – not just the established classics but the forgotten oddities, often in conjunction with Masters of Cinema – films like The White Reindeer and Vij, movies that are in the folk horror zeitgeist but not exactly widely known. Kuroneko very much fits into that category, I think. Mayhem has also built a reputation for presenting films in interesting ways – sometimes, films that don’t even exist. Silent movies like The Unknown and Daughter of Horror with newly commissioned scores, live presentations of unfilmed Hammer movies like The Unquesnsionable Thirst of Dracula and Zeppelins vs Pterodactyls – long before Mark Gattiss and the BBC lifted the idea for themselves (using one of the same film projects, which makes the suggestion of ‘coincidence’ a bit harder to swallow) and now, with Kuroneko, a new complimentary score by Yumah.
We should point out that Kuroneko is not a silent film, so some eyebrows – OK, my eyebrows – were raised somewhat at this announcement. But it is a film with a lot of aural space and I know Yumah – aka Lucy Morrow – and so had some trust that she wasn’t going to bugger the whole thing up. I might have expressed my worries a tad too loudly to her, which in retrospect is not the best way of putting an artist at ease, but there you go.
Anyway, let’s discuss the film first and then the new score.
Shot in crisp, moody black and white and set in feudal, war-torn Japan, this is a more overt ghost story than Onibaba, telling the story of two women – a mother, Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi) – who are raped and murdered by a band of samurai soldiers who then burn their home to the ground. In their dying moments, the women make a pact with the spirit world and are brought back to life as vengeful cat demons. The younger of the two then appears at the entrance to an already ghostly bamboo grove to seduce passing samurai into accompanying her home. After plying them with sake, she then savagely murders them, tearing out their throats with her teeth as they make love.
Eventually, after several bodies are found, a local warlord decides enough is enough and despatches his best warrior to kill the spirits. However, the samurai in question turns out to be Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) the once-kidnapped son and husband of the murdered women, and so begins a conflict on both sides. The wife cannot bring herself to kill her husband, just as he cannot kill his ghostly wife and mother – but a broken pact with the underworld sees the younger woman banished to Hell after spending seven nights with him. Alone, the older woman carries on with the killing, forcing a confrontation between the two.
This is a creepy, atmospheric study of love, death and duty – both the son and the mother are bound by promises made, no matter what they feel for each other – and the resulting film is rather remarkable. The film uses a lot of theatrical techniques, with characters appearing from shadows via stage lighting and the use of kabuki style dramatics, with the ghostly characters almost gliding with silent footsteps and scenes of Otawa dancing in traditional kabuki style; yet it remains extremely cinematic. The bamboo grove is dark, brooding and sinister and the scenes of the samurai being taken to their doom are full of dread and darkness. The seduction scenes are not as quite frank in terms of nudity as Onibaba, but have a definite eroticism nevertheless, while the moments of violence and horror are suitably graphic. The film’s final scenes, with the cat-possessed demon mother returning to reclaim her severed arm (the result of a previous battle with her son), are unsettling and moody and the conflict between mother and son sees some impressive early wirework.
Also worth a mention – especially in the context of the Mayhem edition – is Hikaru Hayashi’s remarkable score, which is rather astonishing. At times, it sounds remarkably similar to Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes soundtrack, full of discordant percussion and strange, unsettling sounds and throughout it cranks up the tension and the sense of tragedy at the heart of the film.
Beautifully shot by Kiyomi Kuroda, Kuroneko proves to be as impressive as I’d hoped. Not as startling as Onibaba, perhaps, or as haunting as Ugestu Monogatari, but nevertheless essential viewing for fans of classic Japanese horror.
You might, reasonably, ask what could be added to this. There is a long and rather dubious history of films being reconstructed by outside parties years after production – terrible colorisation, weird retweaks and the rest. The live Yumah additions to Kuroneko are thankfully not this. As noted earlier, the soundtrack is impressive, but it is also minimalist enough to allow for sympathetic additions. Yumah works in vocal creations and her extra work on this film consists of signs and whispers – new emotive, whispered supplements to the existing soundtrack that blend, almost unnoticed, with the original score. This is less a new soundtrack than additional atmospherics that will fit almost unnoticed with the original soundtrack, providing new aural motifs throughout. Is it necessary? No. Does it enhance the film? Yes. There is room for this to become an impressive alternative version of the film.
Kuroneko is – in either version – a remarkable piece of cinema. The Yumah Version – which seems a decent official alternative title – enhances rather than changes the film and that is something to admire. Whether or not you’ll ever get to hear it remains an unanswered question – a touring version of the film seems a great idea but the practicalities of such a thing remain questionable. I would suggest seeking out the original version nevertheless.
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