Although classified as a horror film, Kuroneko isn't very scary. Instead, it delivers atmosphere and oddities, making it more akin to David Lynch than John Carpenter. It also makes a couple of very abrupt and unexpected scene changes that may challenge viewers to follow the through line of the plot. With middling acting throughout and suspect cinematography in the opening stages, the film is far from essential viewing but offers something outside the norm.
As the film opens, a large group of disheveled samurai-era Japanese men emerge from a forest and enter a quaint hut, where they find two women alone and terrified about their arrival. Sure enough, the men are of the rape-and-pillage persuasion, leading to a shocking start to the film that culminates in the hut being burned to the ground. Somehow, the women who were left in the hut still appear unburned, although also unmoving, indicating that they died but were protected from the fire. Enter a black cat, who stops by long enough to lick their necks in some kind of healing fashion.
Whiplash cut to night at a gated town, where a lone samurai encounters a comely lass who invites him to her home. Once there, she gets him drunk, seduces him, and has her way with him, while an older lady performs an elaborate dance in the spooky, mist-shrouded hall outside their room. Unfortunately, the way the younger lady has with him is by viciously ripping out his neck with her teeth, leaving him dead and magically transported to the ruins of the hut the following morning. OK, so the ladies are the two who were killed in the opening scene then. They repeat this process nightly, leading the head of the town to look for someone to hunt down the temptresses before anyone else dies.
Another left turn cut finds us following a completely bedraggled warrior as he enters town, gets bathed a few times to get back to something appearing human, then gets honored as a conquering hero once the villagers can see who he is. Ahhh, so he's to be the temptress hunter. Easy enough, except that when he finds the women he begins to suspect that they are the spirits of his dead wife and mother. No clue why this is so difficult for him to figure out since they look exactly the same as when they were alive, just better dressed. Anyway, warrior and temptress are reunited as husband and wife, which means he gets to live to see another day rather than acquire a very sore throat. That leaves the only remaining mystery of how this crazy family will move forward, a resolution that plays out rather clumsily with a surprise twist about the wife's fate.
Criterion's restoration appears to be above average compared to similar works of the time, with very few defects visible in the image quality. This enhances the Blu-ray presentation and vice versa, ensuring a superior viewing experience of this odd film. The extras are monopolized by an hour-long interview with the director conducted by his assistant director of over 30 years, leading to a strangely unrevealing piece since they already have intimate knowledge of every aspect of their filmmaking process. There's also a brief and unremarkable interview with a Japanese film critic extolling the value of the film.
Kuroneko is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, October 18th. For more information, visit the Criterion website.