At the climax of Kuroneko, a dreamy Nihonese ghostie from 1968, a samurai thrusts his sword at an evil female feline-god who wants him to return her severed arm. She’s also a demivampire, and the warrior’s mom—at least, she used to be. This wacky-transcending movie is like the I Spit on Your Grave of rural Japanese peasantry, with an added anti-war angle. When it opens, a mother and daughter are robbed, raped and murdered by feral marauders—hungry, idle soldiers who then torch the house and burn the bodies. This, Shindo stresses with nonchalant silences, is the simple, horrible reality of life during wartime.
Then he quickly abandons reality for a magic monster cat (black, natch) that resurrects the charred corpses, empowering them as avenging specters: the ladies appear at night, luring lustful warriors to their deaths, using their sexuality to punish all samurai (whose blood they suck), attacking men’s throats like wolves and becoming the stuff of local infamy. Shindo manipulates space with hallucinatory sophistication: his wraiths soar above the bamboo, extinguish candles as they glide by, float over puddles in slow motion, disappear into edits. The mother’s apparition trance-dances through the halls of their smoke-swallowed dream house. A pounding percussion score sets an uneasy mood, supplemented by the restrained, eerie B&W camera style. This masterpiece of sustained atmosphere, unfortunately paced staidly and acted hammily, proved internationally influential: you can see Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow forests in the movie’s misty, moonlit grove; Zhang Yimou’s airborne battles in the impossible ghost-leaps of its spirit-versus-samurai fight sequences.
Less often imitated is its batty content. There’s a weird psychology at play, some Freudian mess about a son who loses his wife and retributively lops off his mother’s arm. But most striking is the film’s angry anti-war message. One character suggests that war benefits the nobility while the farmers starve—or, worse, as with our two slain women. Ultimately, it seems like those phantasmagoric bloodsuckers aren’t avenging just their own miserable fates; the film is smart enough to acknowledge that not all soldiers are evil. No, they’re getting even with war itself—as though, if war comes at a terrible price, it should have to shoulder some of the cost, too.