I thought I was going to start this post with a witty remark regarding the film’s use of repetitiveness to excellent overall effect, but then the movie ended and, by that time, much of the excellence had drained. Kuroneko is a gorgeous film–Shindo uses theatrical lighting effects for ghostly emphasis, which really works–and for a while it seemed like the writing was going to catch up. The film starts incredibly slow and doesn’t encourage much interest for the first forty minutes because of all that repetition. The scenes are different, but the same… They’re meant to show the passage of time in purely expositional narrative. In some ways, it’s a neat trick for adapting a short story (and I’m surprised Kuroneko doesn’t have that base), but it tries the viewer’s patience. Shindo is asking for advance with every repeat and then, at the end, when he comes up short, it hurts the film. It’s amazing too how he’ll come so close and he won’t make it. Instead of giving a solid narrative, he wants a haunting ending to the film. He could have had a haunting ending too… but he ended the film about thirty seconds early. In some cases, it’d be frustrating, but with something like Kuroneko, which constantly takes the “unbelievable character response” fork in the road, I no longer had my hopes up.
The other major issue with Kuroneko, and it’s probably my issue, is the lack of scariness. It’s a horror movie. Regardless of setting, Shindo’s fine composition, camera moves, and lighting techniques, his script follows many horror movie conventions. Lousy unresolved endings being the predominant feature of horror films. I’m just wondering whether or not a Japanese horror film, set in the pre-urban era, is something I could find frightening. It’s not my culture, it’s not a place where the uncanny would make it different because it’s already different. I kept waiting for Kuroneko to work, but I found I couldn’t traverse the historical, foreign barrier into the film. It might not be me, though. When Kuroneko‘s characters are acting ludicrously to milk another fifteen minutes in running time, their being in this samurai era Japan is essential for the viewer to remember, because as people–with real emotions–their actions don’t work. Only if one takes their culture into account, can disbelief at the littlest things be suspended. Unfortunately, a lot of Kuroneko ends up hinging on special effects and makeup. The special effects are good. The makeup’s overboard. It’s literal instead of discreet… even when it’s trying to be discreet.
The performances are fine. Otowa Nobuko is particularly excellent, since her character gets to emote the most. Nakamura Kichiemon is all right–his scenes with Taichi Kiwako are great–but his character flops around is much, it’s not like his performance was going to be anything more. They all manage to keep a straight-face, which is impressive, given just how theatrical some of the lighting gets. It’s usually pushing at the “too much” line.
I guess it’s a disappointment, not because of the long first act (thirty-five minutes of ninety-four), but because of the promising second. I really don’t like being able to chop a film up with acts so easily, but Kuroneko practically has title cards to signal them. Really good sound design. Forgot about the sound design… excellent sound design.
Written and directed by Shindo Kanetô; director of photography, Kuroda Kiyomi; edited by Enoki Hisao; music by Hayashi Hikaru; produced by Shinsha Nichiei; released by Toho Company Ltd.
Starring Nakamura Kichiemon (Gintoki), Otowa Nobuko (Yone), Taichi Kiwako (Shige), Sato Kei (Raiko), Tonoyama Taiji (a farmer), Toura Rokko (a samurai) and Kanze Hideo (Mikado).