The (Japanese) Black Cat
Let’s get back to our usual topics – strange stories and the East and adventure and flashing swords.
I’ve been spending a lot of time, this weekend, doing some background research for my current “mainstream” project – basically listening to music and watching documentaries about Japan, to catch a sense of place, because my story will have a Japanese side.
As it usually happens, research is changing and stretching the original concepts, and writing will be a fine game of balancing the original plot and the new elements.
It’s going to be fun, hopefully.
But all this also caused me to think back at the strange connection there is between my generation, here in Italy, and Japan. We were the ones that were in their early teens when the big anime invasion began (with stuff like captain Harlock and Mazinger Z), but I always thought there’s something deeper.
Samurai movies, and old documentaries.
For instance – I was in primary school when I caught on the telly Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko – the movie had been presented a few years before at the Cannes Movie Festival before it was cancelled because of the 1968 riots, and was being used to test the video walls in Turin during the Technology Fair.
Basically, if you lived in Turin in the early 1970s, during the Fair you caught extra movies in the morning, movies that were broadcast locally.
What’s Kuroneko about?
It starts with a double rape and an arson, and develops into a tight little horror number – and right now, at the tender age of 51, I wonder how is it possible that my mother allowed me to watch it when I was 6 or 7.
But she did.
In ancient Japan, a bunch of wondering samurai rape and kill a woman and her daughter in law, and then their house catches fire and they die. They are offered a deal in the afterlife – they come back as vengeful ghosts, a pair of cat-women that lure samurai to their house and kill them.
Meanwhile, their son/husband gets promoted to the samurai rank and charged with dealing with the ghosts that are killing the other warriors.
The movie is in black and white, and it features striking visuals and costumes. It is supposedly based, in part, on Akutagawa’s In The Grove, but I can’t confirm this.
Granted, for a kid my age, at the time, it was a samurai movie with monsters – in a few years I’d be getting a steady diet of kaiju movies in the parish cinema – and the torrid subtext of sexuality was completely over my head.
But still the film hinted at a strange, fantastic world, and a place far away that was not like the one in which I was at all. And while the Japanese were basically the bad guys in a lot of Pacific War movies that were readily available, I was already starting, at seven or eight, to develop a veneration for Toshiro Mifune, that I had seen in Hell in the Pacific, another 1968 movie.
It is interesting, I think, how such seeds are planted in our minds. And it is probably a sign of my old age that I find myself wondering about what made me what I am, influences and strange connections.
Did I really become a Japanophile well before Gundam because of Kuroneko?
I can’t exclude it.
Just as I can’t exclude the possibility that I ended up studying fossils because of old documentaries or, maybe, because of old movies I caught as a kid.
Kuroneko has no great SFX – you get strange women gliding through the bamboo grove, and some decent werecat transformation – and it is certainly not in the same league of modern Japanese horror. But it still packs quite a few chills and thrills, and is quite fit for the season. The drama of course arises from the fact that the (not overly heroic) male protagonist must kill his mother and his wife… and they are dead already.
Kuroneko is a small evil chiller, and it’s highly recommended. I wasn’t able to find an online version, but it should be readily available in DVD. There is also a Criterion edition that seems to be the recommended one, but it’s pretty costly.
It all came to my mind last night, and it’s one of the movies that made me. Weird.
It’s highly recommended nonetheless.