From the start it’s got similarly great cinematography and sound-effect-punctuated music as Onibaba, so this is already a winner. It’s another sometimes-erotic ghost story featuring a woman and her daughter-in-law left behind when the men all go to war – was this a running theme in Shindo’s movies? But this time the son/husband returns, and the women themselves don’t fare so well.
Gintoki’s mother (Nobuko Otowa, Shindo’s main mother figure in Onibaba, Naked Island and Mother) and young wife (Kiwako Taichi of the 24th Zatoichi movie) are raped and killed by soldiers, their house burned to the ground, the only witness their black cat.
A year or two later, soldier Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura of Double Suicide) is sent by his boss to defeat the vengeful feline spirits that have been killing his compatriots – the girl luring them to a phantom house in the woods, serving up hot love after the mother serves hot tea. Then the men appear the next morning with their throats torn out.
Gintoki as a ragged warrior, displaying the head of an enemy warlord:
He cleans up nice:
When Gintoki visits the house and discovers the identity of the spirits, he travels to the forest night after night to spend time with them. The wife breaks her vow to drink the blood of all samurai, spending a few nights of love with her husband before disappearing to hell. Mom keeps going out and killing guys though, and Lord Raiko (Kei Sato, Hachi in Onibaba) is demanding results, so Gintoki finally attacks his mother, cutting off her arm, and brings the arm to Raiko as proof of his triumph. But ghost-mom retrieves her cat-arm, and Gintoki goes somewhat insane trying to catch her, falls dead in the ruins of their old house as snow begins to fall and a cat meows.
The visual effects are more complicated than Onibaba‘s. The mother’s hair twitches like a cat’s tail (can the girls turn into cats?), and the movie shows us the unreality of their forest home via a split-screen sky in constant motion through the trees, so that they always seem to be moving while standing still.
Gintoki’s psychologically charged cat-and-mouse game with the spectral women is Kuroneko’s darkly seductive heart. He both recognizes Shige and Yone and knows they aren’t the Shige and Yone he left behind; given the place and time, it seems entirely reasonable for him to suspect they’re demons who’ve cruelly appropriated the appearance of the most important women in his life. That said, the newly minted samurai understands how much a few years can change a person. The ghost women, meanwhile, are wrestling with their own dilemma: they know perfectly well that under the warrior finery, their guest is Hachi, and wish they didn’t. There’s no real winning here, just infinite degrees of losing—losing one’s soul, life, honor, or humanity.