A few months ago, the Crypt of Curiosities briefly touched on a subgenre of Japanese cinema called Kaidan. For the unaware, modern Kaidan are ghost stories, usually set in the Edo period and drawing on classic mythology and folklore. It was a very popular genre for ’50s and ’60s Japanese cinema to draw on, with standouts like Ugetsu (1953), Black Cat Mansion (1958), and Kwaidan (1964) helping define the movement as one of the great types of J-Horror. But when it comes to the ultimate in Kaidan, one director’s body of work stands out among the rest: the Kaidan of Kaneto Shindo.
Kaneto Shindo was a legend. Over the course of the hundred years he was with us, he worked as a screenwriter on everything from war films to disaster movies to Zatoichi entries, and served as the director for avant-garde classics like The Naked Island (1960). His filmography spans all sorts of genres and movements, but he’s best known for his two Kaidan. And it’s not hard to see why. Both films are special in their own ways, and with 1964’s Onibaba, Shindo came out of the gates swinging.
In the midst of a bloody civil war in ancient Japan, two nameless women fight a desperate struggle for survival. Alone in an old house, they make due by murdering wandering samurai and selling their weapons and armor to perverted black market merchants. At home, they eat and sleep in peace, awaiting the return of an unseen man: the Young Woman’s (Jitsuko Yoshimura) husband and the Old Woman’s (Nobuko Otowa) son. This is how they’ve lived for years, and this is how they plan to live until their loved one returns.
Everything changes when Hachi (Kei Sato) appears. He’s an old neighbor, back from the war, with terrible news. The man they’re waiting for died unceremoniously in combat, and Hachi was there to see it. Crushed with the news, the two work to keep on living their unsustainable lifestyle, and the increasingly troubling presence of Hachi isn’t doing them any favors. It becomes increasingly clear that Hachi isn’t exactly the most humane soul around, but as the Young Woman begins to fall for him, the Old Woman takes extreme measures to keep the two apart.
While the story is gripping, it’s nowhere near as impressive as how Shindo chooses to tell it. Instead of relying on dialogue, Onibaba operates on a sort of "pure cinema" level, using long, wordless takes and thick atmosphere to tell its story. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the astounding opening sequence, an 11-minute wordless stretch showing the women murdering, stripping, and disposing of a samurai in a field of rustling reeds. It’s a stunning display of confident, elegant filmmaking, and the first of many moments where all dialogue and pretensions are stripped away, as we just watch (often brutal) movement through a hostile world.
Of course, a good chunk of what makes it work so well is the across the board brilliance of the cast. Both Jitsuko Yoshimura and Kei Sato are incredible physical actors, telling more than any clunky bit of exposition could with just their expressions and body language. But while they’re both great in the film, neither can hope to hold a candle to Nobuko Otowa, who does a phenomenal job turning her character’s grief, jealousy, and rage into a downright terrifying performance—and that’s before she gets her hands on a demon mask, turning the film from a macabre tragedy to a twisted, mean morality play that resembles the most humorless medieval-set EC Comics story imaginable, right down to a vicious twist ending. And every step of the way, Nobuko Otowa is the one that’s selling the transformation. Without her, there’d be no horror film.
Even when the actors aren’t on screen, Onibaba is still magnetic. Thanks to a masterful coordination between lighting, cinematography, and sound, Onibaba is genuinely one of the most technically accomplished horror films of the’60s. Beautiful nighttime cinematography captures pale figures moving in front of an endless, starless sky, and the ambient sounds of nature are only interrupted by sudden, disarming bursts of heavy percussion that punctuate sudden violence. It’s a film built entirely around atmosphere, and it’s laid on thick. Every last sway of the reeds and lap of disturbed water has so much detail and care packed into it, that the windy fields around the trio practically become main characters in their own right. And like all of Onibaba’s characters, there’s a hidden darkness lurking within them.
The darkness manifests in one of Onibaba’s greatest strengths: the film’s subtle hints of mysticism. It seems like the very land around the trio is a supernatural, ungodly force, with talk of apocalyptic going-ons in other corners of Japan and the most heinous war crimes imaginable being perpetrated on the daily basis. Even the field of reeds the women use for their scavenging is portrayed as some sort of haunted grove, with the deep hole they use to dispose of bodies constantly shrouded in darkness, like an entry to hell in the middle of nowhere.
When you get down to it, those little hints of the supernatural are what really help make Onibaba so effective. Despite never directly dabbling in fantasy, it’s enough to create an atmosphere of impending doom, with all the talk of the apocalypse and appearances of mysterious, demon-masked individuals making it clear that there’s only one way this sort of story can end—and it can’t be pretty. From the moment we meet Hachi onwards, the film feels like a long, slow march to oblivion, and the grimmer the plot becomes, the darker and more mysterious the land gets. It’s a depressing world for a depressing story, and a perfect bow that wraps Onibaba up into the J-Horror masterpiece we know and love.
Several years after directing Onibaba and the dark drama Conquest (1965), Shindo returned to horror with Kuroneko, a film that takes Onibaba’s hints towards the supernatural to violent, literal extremes. Once again set in ancient Japan, Kuroneko follows a familiar pairing of an old woman named Yone (Again, Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law, Shige (Kiwako Taichi), who live in a small house tucked away in a secluded bamboo grove. And like Onibaba, it begins with a lengthy, wordless sequence of murder and disposing of bodies.
But this time, everything’s different. Instead of watching a lone samurai flee from an unseen force, we see a practical army of samurai approach the women’s house and proceed to rape and murder them, setting the building ablaze as they leave, retreating into the forests. It’s a bold opening, and one that immediately makes Kuroneko’s intentions clear. It’s familiar Shindo, sure, but it’s anything but a retread of familiar grounds.
Because while Yone and Shige may die, death is not the end. In contrast to Onibaba’s subdued, arguably nonexistent supernatural elements, Kuroneko has no qualms about its ghastly subject matter. Because not long after Yone and Shige die, the two return as vengeful spirits, living in an illusionary manor projected over the ashes of their own home. Here they wait, seducing samurai to their grove and tearing out their throats with catlike fangs. This is how they function in the afterlife. That is, until Gintoki (legendary Kabuki actor Nakamura Kichiemon II) arrives.
The good news is Gintoki is (in another clever inversion of Onibaba) the man they were waiting for in life, their lost loved one off to fight in a war. The bad news is that he’s also a samurai. Now, to stay in the realm of the living, the two spirits must murder Gintoki, but the bride’s undying love for the samurai proves to be disastrous for everyone involved.
With Kuroneko, Shindo returns to doomed love, loss, and mourning, but this time, he makes sure to flesh out all the players a great deal more. While Onibaba’s characters are certainly complex, there’s a real sense of melancholy with all three protagonists here, and Gintoki never falls into the same, oddly one-note violent mania that Hachi develops in Onibaba. Both films are tragedies, sure, but Kuroneko mostly leaves behind the cruelty of the former, instead relying solely on the tight script and characteristically phenomenal performances to carry the film.
That’s not to imply that Kuroneko is tamer than Onibaba—no, quite the opposite. While Onibaba shows off Shindo’s superb visual storytelling skills through quiet, meditative nature shots, Kuroneko does it through a much more kinetic venue: fight scenes. The film has its share of bloody, brutal showdowns between righteous spirits and violent samurai, all of which rarely feature more than a single word spoken, the rest left to the physicality of the actors, the swooping cinematography, and some incredible wirework letting the ghosts fly through the air. While it’s no Lady Snowblood, Kuroneko’s action serves the story well, and proves that Shindo’s expert direction of actors and framing can translate to all-out action without a hitch.
Granted, despite the presence of pulse-pounding action with graphic throat rips and beautiful fight choreography, I once again find myself enthralled by Shindo’s keen sense of atmosphere. While the wide-open fields of reeds in Onibaba were gorgeous, they have absolutely nothing on Kuroneko’s landscapes. Thick forests of bamboo and fog are captured in glorious high contrast black and white cinematography, with gloriously theatrical lighting again making it feel like characters are trapped in an endless maze of darkness. It’s kind of incredible.
Hell, that can apply to both films. They’re just incredible examples of a master craftsman showing off his skills, and honestly, the only reason I have less to say about Kuroneko is because I’d probably just be repeating the same compliments I gave Onibaba. They’re different films, sure, but they exceed in many of the same ways, with Kuroneko intentionally recycling and remixing plot elements and iconography. If they weren’t so damn good, and the latter wasn’t so damn clever with its recycling, it wouldn’t be a stretch to accuse Shindo of being lazy. But when the two films work as well as they do, both in isolation and as a director offering a sly spin on his own material, then I can’t be mad. They’re both subgenre greats, plain and simple. The greatest tragedy is that Shindo never made another.Next: Crypt of Curiosities: Ishiro Honda’s King Kong Movies