Shindô Kaneto’s 1968 ghost/vampire movie “Kuronekô” (Black Cat, or “Yabu no naka no kuronekô,” “Black cat from the grove”) is, frame-by-frame (excepting those showing corpses?( quite beautiful. And the story is at least in part romantic.
It definitely does not begin that way! Fourteen or fifteen hungry and thirsty soldiers (bandits or ronin, if the two categories can be distinguished) are foraging, drink from an irrigation channel, burst into a hut, grab all the food, gang rape the two women, then leave them in a very photogenically burning hut. (It falls around them, leaving their bodies oddly uncharred and with no burnt debris on them.)
Later, viewers learn that the women are the mother (Otoa Nobuko, wife of the director) and the wife, Sige (Taichi Kiwako) of a young farmer who was forcibly conscripted, and is the sole survivor of a battle in the north (a glorious victory…).
The onryo, ghosts of women, have been seeking late-night accompaniment through a bamboo grove, where they get the samurais (one at a time) who have provided protection drunk. Then the younger one beds them and bites their necks before the sexual deed is done.
The god of evil has permitted them to resume their bodily form to slay samurais and drink their blood. This is going well for them until the son/husband (Nakamura Kichiemon, who would star in Shinoda’s “Double Suicide” the next year) returns, is raised to high rank as Gintoki of the Grove (his battle name, before that, before he appears onscreen, he was Hachi—the same name as the returned reluctant warrior in “Onibaba,” btw), and charged by the very hirsute and very arrogant Samurai leader (daimyo) Raiko (Satô Kei) with slaying the ghosts.
The women’s usual scenario for the entrapment and slaying unfolds, but the vengeful ghosts cannot bring themselves to slay Hachi, and send back alive before dawn, every night for a week.
The titular black cat was a kitten when Hachi was dragooned, a witness to the pillage, rape, and murder, and seems to be another form of the mother, though I think there is one scene in which the cat and both women are present. The cat is heard en route (to the house of the ghosts or, inside it, en route to death) by several of the samurais.
I’m not quite sure whether Shindô shares the view of Hachis wife or his mother about whether he has become a soulless victimizer. It doesn’t seem to be that his war experiences have killed his soul or that he cares very much about the gains in material status won by his success at arms (which astonished him more than it did anyone else).
Together with “Onibaba,” “Kuronekô” shows a view that poor women are justified in feeding (literally in the case of “Kuroenkô”) on samurai in beautifully photographed rural locations (Shindô was a great admirer of Mizoguchi, who had been Shindô’s mentor during the 1930s and 40s, and Shinodô’s ghost stories have something of the look of “Sansho, the Bailiff” and “Ugetsu”). As with some movies by Kinoshita, Kobayashi, and Kurosawa, the musical score (by Hayashi Kijaru) is nowhere as impressive as the cinematography (herein by Kuroda Kiyomi, whose work won the Mainichi award, as did Otowa’s acting).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray
There is a Criterion blu-ray of this movie, which also streams on Hulu.