Cat Got Your Tongue?: Dehumanization in KURONEKO
28 October 2012
Kuroneko (translated as Black Cat) is a stunning and disturbing 1968 Japanese horror film by Kaneto Shindo. The film begins with one of the most enthralling openings in cinematic history. The establishing is a long shot of a small cottage in the country; the cottage is in a clearing which is surrounded by woods. In silence, nearly 20 mud-covered soldiers emerge from the woods and descend upon this small dwelling. Inside the home the soldiers see two women, a mother, Yone (Nobuko Otowa), and her daughter-in-law, Shige (Kiwako Taichi). They attack the women, stealing their food and possessions, raping them, murdering them, and finally setting the cottage on fire. The soldiers disappear back into the woods as silently and subtly as they originally emerged. Mysteriously, a black cat arrives at the charred wreckage of the cottage where the two burned bodies lay. The cat, crying, lies atop the bodies, licking the women’s fatal wounds, as if trying to awaken their grave sleep. Next, the film cuts to a woman, dressed in white against the darkness of night, approaching a samurai on horseback. This is the younger of the two women, Shige, murdered in the cottage. Under the guise that she is afraid to walk home alone in the dark, she lures the samurai back to her home, a mystifying, floating fortress standing on the same ground the cottage once had. The samurai’s chivalry serves as signature on his death certificate because when they arrive at the woman’s mysterious home the older woman, Yone, is waiting. The ghostly mother and daughter-in-law duo ply the samurai with sake and conversation, and Shige eventually makes sexual advances toward him. When the samurai is amply intoxicated, Shige attacks and kills him, biting at his throat the way a cat attacks prey. And this is only the first twenty minutes of the film.
As the film continues, the women lure samurai after samurai, until one samurai, Gintoki (Nakamura Kichiemon II), turns out to be Yone’s son and Shige’s husband, who both women thought was lost in war. The women, seemingly possessed by the animal spirit which brought them back from the grave to seek their revenge, must decide whether to return to hell or continue their nightly revenge on samurais, which would include Gintoki.
Obviously one of the themes in Kuroneko is dehumanization, specifically through the representation of humans as animals. This theme is most noticed in Kuroneko through the characters of Yone and Shige, the two women who are somehow brought back to life by a black cat, and henceforth take on animal qualities, including hunting and killing their samurai prey. Direct examples of dehumanization of the women are when Yone’s ponytail sways left to right on its own, behind her head, just as a cat’s tail swings. Also, Shige drinks from a large barrel of water by putting her head to it and licking it up. Of course the violent manner Shige murders her prey, repeatedly biting and ripping of the neck, is cat-like. Lastly, the film’s climax, the confrontation between Gintoki and Yone after he cuts her arm off, highlights Yone’s dehumanization; her arm, although once like any other human arm, now appears black and hairy, like the arm of a cat.
While Shindo’s dehumanization of Yone and Shige is obvious, his dehumanization of other characters, primarily soldiers and samurais, is much more subtle. In fact, Shindo’s direct dehumanization of the female juxtaposes nicely with his dehumanization of the men in the film. Brief visual cues and dialogue reveal the true horror of Kuroneko is not the cat-like female ghosts, but the animal-like living soldiers and samurais who repeatedly fail to show any humanity in the film.
For example, the opening sequence, when the soldiers emerge from the woods and pillage, rape, and murder Yone and Shige. As the soldiers walk toward the cottage, they stop off at a small stream running right in front of Yone and Shige’s home. The men all drop to their knees, instinctually, and put their faces in the water, lapping up all they can. They actions resemble that of animals drinking from a water source, and this likening dehumanizes the soldiers, identifying them physically as the beasts they prove to be when they enter the cottage. Moreover, unlike the samurais the women lure from Rashomon Gate later in the film, the soldiers that attack the women in their cottage are not dressed; they are barely covered in small pieces of fabric and plastered in filth. Their appearance, particularly when juxtaposed to Yone and Shige, and retrospectively compared to the samurais, is untamed and more animalistic than human.
Additionally, before returning from Ezo, a remote region of Japan, Gintoki battled in war, and the film captures the conclusion of his battle. Gintoki, muddy and barely clothed, much like the aforementioned soldiers, runs through the swampy land, chased by an equally brutal enemy, one covered in thick, black hair. Without speaking a word, the two men fight violently. Eventually, when the enemy’s mallet unexpectedly gets stuck, Gintoki slays his ferocious opponent and beheads him. The primal nature of the fight and sheer brutality of war and its carnage dehumanizes the aggressors, Gintoki and his enemy.
Even after Gintoki humanizes his appearance and reenters a relationship with his ghostly wife, there are still undeniable echoes of the animal within him. For example, he tells his wife, “I want to devour you. I want to chew you up and consume you.” Thus, even after his exterior humanizes, from blood covered soldier to refined samurai, his inner animal still remains. Although Shindo primarily focuses on exteriors in Kuroneko when exploring dehumanization, he does not miss the opportunity to highlight that these samurais’ inner selves can be just as inhuman and Yone and Shige.
In a less dramatic manner as the previous two examples, yet equally significant, Shindo draws attention to the animal-like quality of Raiko (Kei Sato), the governor. As beautiful Japanese women surround and pamper Raiko, the camera zooms in on the thick, black hair of his legs and chest. With the black cat never far away, this visual cue to an animal suggests Raiko, too, is animalistic, dehumanizing him.
Because of the limited amount of characters in the film, it is impossible to know definitively if Shindo intended to liken all humans to animals, or if he specifically targeted soldiers and samurais. Since there are a few passing characters who are not made animalistic at all, such as the elderly farmer who tells Gintoki that his wife and mother may have fled their home, it is more likely that Shindo is purposefully equating inhumanity with soldiers and samurai. While his two leading ladies quite literally take on the attributes of cats to seek their revenge of samurai, they are dead; they are already inhuman. However, the living soldiers and samurai themselves, right from the start of the film, are beasts. Considering how savagely the samurai treated Yone and Shige, as well as the graphic violence between Gintoki and his opponent in war, not to mention the carnage of the battle landscape when Gintoki emerged victorious, is it fair to suggest Kuroneko’s horror rests primarily (or primal-ly) in humans lacking humanity.