Kuroneko has strong echoes of Shindo’s previous film, the seminal J-Horror Onibaba, in which a mothers jealousy over her daughter and lover, leads to dire consequences for her as she tries to take her revenge on them in the guise of a demon. At the heart of Kuroneko is a similar triangle, as the central drama plays out between a mother (the same actress as the mother in Onibaba, Shindo’s wife in real life), her son and daughter-in-law. The difference here being that the mother and daughter-in-law have become real demons, returned to earth for a period after making a pact with the devil.
The film opens with a band of samurai pillaging the modest thatch roofed farmhouse of the mother (Yone) and daughter-in-law (Shige). They proceed to eat all their food, gang rape and kill them, then exit the house setting it alight leaving it to burn. Curiously in Onibaba, the mother and daughter survived by stealing the armour of wounded and dying samurai -sometimes murdering them in the process- selling it to buy food. Seems there’s some kind of redemption at work here.
Lying side by side at the centre of the smouldering ruins we see mother and daughter-in-law. A black cat creeps through the ruin to one of the women and laps at the blood oozing from her charred neck.
Samurai in the prefecture begin to disappear. Their corpses are discovered in a bamboo grove. Necks shredded as if bitten by a vampire. The samurai lord Raiko sends more samurai into the grove to try destroying the ‘monster’ behind the killings. We soon see the method behind these. A samurai sees a beautiful woman (Shige) as he passes Rajomon gate. Shige says it is late and she is afraid to walk alone through the bamboo grove at night to her home, she asks if he will he accompany her? She leads him deeper into the grove through a veil of mist and into a mysterious wooden house between the bamboos. She invites him inside, where they both sit on the wooden floor either side of a low table. Yone comes in and serves them sake. She leaves them alone. The samurai gets drunker and drunker. He starts to make sexual advances on Shige. She rips his neck open as they embrace. Everything disappears as if a mirage leaving the body of the samurai behind in the grove to be discovered by peasants. It is revealed that Yone and Shige have made an agreement with the devil. They are allowed to return from the dead at night for a limited period of time in return for killing all samurai who pass through the grove.
A samurai Hachi returns from the battlefields to find his house burnt down and his mother and wife missing. The samurai lord Raiko hires him to try to find the monster killing the samurai in the grove beyond Rajomon Gate. Like the samurai before him Hatchi is lead into the grove by Shige. Yone serves them sake in the long low ceilinged traditional Japanese house. It’s as if they are on a stage. Hachi says they remind him so much of his missing wife and mother. Of course they know whom he is and are left with a dilemma. They cannot kill him. In the background ground we hear the creepy creaking of the bamboos mingling with the wonderful minimalist soundtrack by Hikaru Hayashi, largely silence punctuated by random percussion. An exterior shot. The house seems to float surreally in the grove, superimposed as in a montage. The amazing chiaroscuro photography here and throughout the film by Kiyomi Kuroda is one of the real stars of the film. Both composer and cinematographer also collaborated previously on Onibaba to equally startling effect.
Hachi returns to the grove the following nights. He and Shige make desperate love, the scene dripping with charged eroticism, behind drapes in the phantom house.
Raiko is not happy that Hachi has made little progress with monster in the grove. The next time Hachi returns to the grove Shige is nowhere to be found. Hachi eventually succeeds in getting an explanation of Yone, whom he now suspects is his mother. Shige has broken her pact with the evil one by not killing Hachi and has returned to eternal damnation. A conflict ensues between Yone and Hachi, as he desperately tries to get her to admit that she’s his mother. Her arm is severed off in the confusion. The disembodied limb metamorphoses into a cat’s arm and paw. Hachi returns this to Raiko as a trophy, saying he has slayed the monster.
Later Yone visits Hachi in the night while he meditates in his chamber. She has come to reclaim her arm, which sits on a pedestal before him.