Kuroneko (dir. Kaneto Shindo, 1968) brims with beautiful, haunting images; low-key lighting casts shadows across the scenery. Described in Criterion as an “eerie twilight tale,” the film’s visuals are uniquely suited for the ghost-story––or in this case, the bakeneko mono (monster-cat tale)––being told (Balmain, 72). Born out of the same amalgamation of beauty and mystery are Shige (Nobuko Otawa) and daughter-in-law Yone (Kiwako Taichi), two shape-shifting bakeneko. They resemble the refined image of Sengoku period noblewomen: their bodies are adorned in luxurious kimonos, their faces are powdered white, and their eyebrows are painted in small black ovals on the forehead (hikimayu). Yet for all this attention to visual beauty, the film begins with utter horror: Yone and Shige are gang-raped and murdered by a band of samurai. This violation spurs their transformation into vengeful bakeneko, who exist to murder samurai. The female youkai can be read as a subversive representation: she acts against her violator and Japanese patriarchy. But does her power (and empowerment) still have roots in male exploitation? Does her monstrosity itself rely on an essentially patriarchal world? Is rape-revenge ever really liberating?
The erotic ghost story, a sub-genre of pinku eiga (pink film), “[provided] a mechanism of articulation cultural anxieties at a time of rapid transformation in Japan’s socio-economic structure (Balmain, 72).” Kuroneko is set in the Sengoku Period (1467-1615), a period of great violence and social breakdown––and the film certainly highlights class boundaries. However, more relevant are the notions of metamorphosis in Shintō and Buddhism, the latter of which possesses the notion of “a karmic cycle suggesting a potential bestiality in humans and potential humanity in animals (72).” This framework of transformation abounds in Japanese folklore, in which the bakeneko is one of many shape-shifting creatures.
In Kuroneko, Yone and Shige transform into bakeneko after their death. Their newly gained abilities are bestowed upon them conditionally––they must kill all samurai, not just the ones who assaulted them. In Ghosts of Desire: Kaidan pinku eiga, Colette Balmain proposes that Kaneto Shindo’s film represents female monstrosity with subversity. She cites Linda Ruth Williams, who argues that “the vampiric or transformative self functions to subvert gender power relations and identification, ‘since it betrays the possibility that pleasure is dangerous, and our victims might also be our violators’ (74).” Balmain connects the bakeneko’s transformative nature to another transgression, specifically of the class boundary––which in turn allows the women in Kuroneko to take vengeance and “function as metaphorical signifiers of class oppression (77).” Additionally, their method of murder involves seducing the samurai through “their appetites (comfort, sake, sex) rather than [attacking] them outright, making the same gluttony that brutalized the women now spell their own demise’ (76).”
Kuroneko questions the samurai order, particularly the militarism of the bushido code and its implications for women. However, whatever empowerment that can be gleaned from the film rests wholly on a power granted to the already violated woman. And in this case, their power is also their monstrosity; beneath their demure outer appearance lies a constant potential of supernatural violence. Barbara Creed’s term ‘monstrous feminine,’ a take on the ‘female monster,’ emphasizes the gendered differences that makes her horrifying (3). Through Creed’s Freudian framework, the monstrous feminine in horror films “speaks to us more about male fears than about female desire or feminine subjectivity.” The bakeneko certainly typify this sort of monstrosity––their fearsomeness (i.e. their seductive and fatal ability) encapsulates the concurrent heterosexual male desire and anxiety of the sexually-active woman.
The central conflict of the film’s plot rests on the return of Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), Shige’s son and Yone’s husband. He returns from conscription and becomes a respected samurai––ordered to defeat the creature that has been murdering samurai in the vicinity. When he is reunited with Yone and Shige, he becomes caught between ninjō and giri: “[whilst] giri requires obedience to one’s superiors, necessitating that he defeat the women, ninjō––compassion, emotion and love––prevents him from doing so (Creed, 77).” Husband and wife reunited, they spend a week together, the mise-en-scène eroticizing their scenes of their lovemaking––in contrast to the violence of the revenge sequences. In spite of her portrayed sexual autonomy, Yone’s choice to spend this week with Gintoki proves a sacrificial one. She breaks her vow to kill all samurai––as Gintoki himself is now a samurai––and shortens her life, doomed to live in hell: “Yone fits the archetype of what Barrett terms the ‘All-Suffering Female,’ who because of her romantic attachments to the early world is ‘denied rebirth’ and instead ‘forced to undergo the torments of hell’ (Balmain, 77-78).”
While of her own choice, Yone gives up her monstrosity to fulfill “societal dictates of appropriate femininity,” specifically within the notion of ryōsaikenbo (good wife, wise mother) (73-78). Shige’s transgressiveness remains comparably more intact, as she rejects her maternal duties, keeping her vow as bakeneko. Gintoki cuts off his mother’s arm, ridding her (temporarily) of her powers; which “seems to imply male anxiety over both maternal and female empowerment (78).” Kuroneko ends with Gintoki’s death: the “only solution” for his ninjō and giri conflict. Regardless, the monstrosity––either rejected by Yone or chosen by Shige––is still rooted in a transgression of outward beauty by the threat of inward evil––a typical stereotype “within patriarchal discourses about woman’s evil nature (Creed, 42).”
Yone and Shige’s power is conditioned upon the violation of their rape. And their power, and in turn their fearsomeness, is entirely reliant on projections of male desire and anxiety. Is their method of luring in men really empowering when it entails a near re-traumatization of their violation? In the eye-for-an-eye ethos of rape-revenge, the method of fatal seduction never quite equals the violation endured; murder as means of redemption is ultimately never sufficient because it is emotionally hollow (Wilson). It is hard to extract any empowerment from their commitment to revenge when there exists no other option for Shige and Yone other than living in the torment of hell. When Yone chooses to indulge in her own sexual desire, she also chooses this horrid punishment. So while their power could be framed as a reclamation of their sexuality, it is ultimately entirely separate from their own desires––the sexually active woman is a threat to all, even herself. Their very existence as bakeneko is monstrous because it is transgressive; in other words, their monstrosity is simultaneously an articulation of their disempowerment.
Kuroneko, in the context of the samurai film, represents women outside of the restrictive definitions of femininity and maternity. Exteriority however, does not inherently represent feminist protest. The film can be seen as a nod to women’s existence in a patriarchal society––a continual struggle, in which the only route to (quasi-)empowerment is weaponizing society’s articulations of femininity and/or partially or completely rejecting one’s desire for the sake of survival. But it also speaks to the disempowerment of the rape-revenge genre. Almost half a century later, and the rape-revenge film is still prevalent; Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020) attempts to comment on the intertwining of rape-culture and patriarchy. However Fennell’s film, much like Kuroneko, manages only to observe disempowerment. It is worth asking: does the rape-revenge genre merit feminist consideration?
*Kuroneko (dir. Kaneto Shindo, 1968) is available to stream on Criterion.
Mizuki Samuelson grew up in Providence, RI, where she spent her childhood and teenage years dancing ballet and studying French. She is now a rising junior at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN. She studies Media and Cultural Studies and Japanese, with specific interests in video production and representations of race and gender in media.