|One of the lady ghosts of Japanese proto horror film Kuroneko (1968) directed by Kaneto Shinedo.|
d. Kaneto Shinedo
Criterion Collection #584
Unlike some of the more esoteric categories within the Criterion Collection, "Japanese Horro" is a genre where I feel like there is at least a realistic possibility I will encounter someone who is "into" these films and be able to carry on a conversation with them prior to my death. Another positive about Japanese horror movies is that "cool" people often feel vaguely guilty if they are NOT familiar with the genre and will act like they are interested in these films our of a sense of duty to be versed.
Japanese horror traces roots back to Japanese folk tales tracing back to what we would call "the Middle Ages" and beyond. Many of the ghosts are vengeful spirits of wronged women, putting the story of Kuroneko (Woman and her daughter and law are raped and murdered by a bunch of samurai and become demons who kill and eat samurai.) Similar to a tale in one of the other early Japanese films, Kwaidan, the resolution of the tale involves a family twist, when the long lost son in law returns as a samurai and is tasked with the job of killing the demon spirits of his wife and mother in law. IRONY ALERT!!!!
The wife takes herself out of the picture by trading her demon immortality for "seven days of heaven" with her living husband, but the mother-in-law doesn't go down so early. There is also a demon cat involved. If you are familiar with more recent iterations of Japanese horror films, you can see some of the visual motifs already formed in Kuroneko, particularly the agile skittering of female ghosts, which I realize now must be related to the cats that are constantly popping up in these tales (for example the Demon Cat in House.)
Like Kwaidan, Kuroneko is not scary so much as spooky and kind of melancholy. There isn't a lot of zest for mayhem like you see in American horror, and the contemplative tone is more in line with the rest of Japanese cinema vs. representing a departure from national cinema conventions.