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Blu-ray Review: Kuroneko

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The Criterion Collection has been a benchmark for quality among film collectors, and their Blu-ray treatments for classic films ranks among the best. The bulk of their library is made up of classic films that are revered the world over. The most recent addition to their high definition lineup comes from Japan, 1968.

Kuroneko is a black and white film directed by Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba). It’s essentially a Japanese ghost story, and there are plenty of supernatural elements thrown into the mix. It’s haunting and imaginative throughout, though one could argue that the plot isn’t as strong as could be and that there are pacing issues. Despite these little setbacks, Kuroneko is totally worth adding to your library if you’re a fan of classic Japanese cinema.

The film takes place in feudal Japan and starts out with a small house next to a field. All is quiet and peaceful until 17 samurai soldiers come trouncing through and discover a woman and her daughter inside. Though it’s not graphic, Kuroneko takes a disturbing turn as all 17 men rape the women to death and set their house on fire. As the men head back into the forest, they couldn’t possibly expect the women would come back as vengeful spirits looking to kill.

A black cat bonds with their souls and brings the women’s spirits back to the land of the living. One by one, the women lure the samurai to a mysterious house in a bamboo grove where they proceed to seduce and kill them. Once this part of the story kicks up, the pacing drags on a bit as the film becomes somewhat repetitive. This tale of seduction and revenge goes on for roughly half the film’s runtime, and then things change drastically.

Without going into too much detail, a person is introduced that causes the spirits to take a step back from what they were doing. It’s an unexpected twist that completely shakes up the plot and pacing, and it’s a rather welcome change. Ultimately, it saves the film from being an outright violent and disturbing horror piece, and moves it on to something else entirely. It’s a bold direction that could only come from Shindo and it’s a necessary play to keep viewers invested.

Ultimately Kuroneko isn’t the most haunting ghost story ever told, but it’s definitely a lot of fun. The atmosphere is unrivaled and the concept is fresh for American audiences. If you’ve been a fan of the film, or this is your first time checking it out, you’ll definitely be pleased with this high definition Blu-ray release.

Kuroneko is presented on Blu-ray with a full 1080 high definition. The film comes with its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has received MPEG-4 AVC encoding. Like most all other Criterion Blu-ray releases, Kuroneko is a sight to behold. The picture quality goes above and beyond expectations and it does justice to such an aged piece of film. Details are sharp, black levels are rich, grain content is appropriate, and all around the video is quite refined. Some shimmer does appear in scenes, but it’s hardly much of a deterrent.

A little on the flat side, but that’s what one would expect, Criterion has presented Kuroneko with a Japanese LPCM 1.0 audio track. Being mono there’s really no presents on the soundstage aside from the front channels, but that’s okay. The sound is razor sharp, there’s some great direction in terms of dialogue, ambient noise, and music, and all around the quality is crystal in every way. The lack of more channel support is disappointing, but considering the age of the material it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

For bonus features Kuroneko includes a trailer of the film and a 30-page booklet. The packet is nicely illustrated with “The Mark of the Cat,” an essay by Maitland McDonagh, and an interview with Kaneto Shindo. Included on the disc itself are two interviews: one with Shindo and another with Tadao Sato, a Japanese film critic. The Shindo interview was the far better of the two, but Sato’s offered some good incite into the film.

At the end of the day, Kuroneko is an outstanding film that has withstood the test of time. It’s dark, mysterious, and the twist halfway through really sends the plot into satisfying places. If you’re a fan of the film, or simply want to expand your Blu-ray Criterion collection, you simply can’t go wrong with this one.

Highly Recommended

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