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To anyone who thinks that Japanese horror began with 1998’s RINGU, think again. The Far East was making spooky movies as far back as the late 1940s, and many of these early spinetinglers are seeing the light of day in the U.S., thanks to DVD, theatrical reissues and festivals. Following their successful rerelease of HOUSE (a.k.a. HAUSU from 1977; see article in FANGORIA #298) last January, Janus Films has dug up 1968’s KURONEKO (original title: YABU NO NAKA NO KURONEKO), which will make its New York theatrical premiere at the Film Forum (209 West Houston;  727-8110) from October 22-28 with a gorgeous new 35mm black & white Scope print. Written and directed by the prolific Kaneto Shindo, who has helmed nearly 50 films since 1951, KURONEKO seems to have been overshadowed by the more famous 1964 Japanese horror classics KWAIDAN and ONIBABA (both screening, by the way, at New York City’s Japan Society; Shindo also directed ONIBABA). So the movie—a Japanese folk tale of ghostly revenge—is ripe for rediscovery.
KURONEKO opens in medieval Japan, as a dozen or so exhausted, hungry and horny samurai warriors stumble out of the forest upon a small cabin. Inside, a woman (Nobuko Otowa of ONIBABA) and her daughter in law (Kiwako Taichi) tremble in fear at the terrible inevitable: their rape, murder and home set ablaze by the brutish “defenders” of the realm. Later we cut to the city’s towering Rajomon Gate, where, nightly, samurai are being lured away by a beautiful spirit into the nearby, fog-enshrouded woods. Under the watchful, complicit eye of the elder ghost, the girl seduces the men, tears their throats out and drinks their blood. After the bodies begin piling up, the governor enlists recent war hero Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) to destroy these distaff demons of the night. But when Gintoki meets the ethereal women, he realizes they look oddly familiar…
KURONEKO overflows with evocative and atmospheric imagery, much thanks to the photography of Kiyomi Kuroda (another ONIBABA vet): the ominous bamboo forest, stalks noisily knocking against each other in the wind; the inky black cats supping at the necks of the dead women (KURONEKO means “Black Cat”); the slo-mo acrobatics of the willowy-robed spirits, their aerial stuntwork predating the CHINESE GHOST STORY movies; and the final shot, where a wide-eyed corpse stares skyward as snow falls around his body and the burned-out ruins where he fell. Much of KURONEKO plays like twisted Kabuki theater, accentuated by the spare music of Hikaru Hayashi (which reminded me a little of Jerry Goldsmith’s avant-garde score for PLANET OF THE APES, released that same year). KURONEKO unfolds like a dream, and at the same time, Shindo infuses the film with a scathing political subtext, tragic irony and mature sexual content. Horror fans should seek out this haunting Japanese ghost story.
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