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MIDNIGHT IN THE REEDS
Revisiting a Pair of '60s J-Horror Classics
BILL WOOD | AUGUST 28, 2023
From Junji Ito’s stunning manga Uzumaki to the techno-industrial weirdness of Tetsuo: The Iron Man to the mind-boggling pop spectacle that is Hausu, there’s something about J-horror that manages to totally unnerve. It reaches into the back of our craniums, digging up long-buried fears and reminding us that maybe the world isn’t always as normal—and safe—as we assume it is. Many J-horror fans were introduced to the genre via blockbusters such as Ringu, Ju-on (The Grudge) and Dark Water, or the Americanized adaptations of these three films. But if you're a devotee of classic Japanese cinema, you'll know that the stage was set decades before these relatively modern thrillers hit the screen.
In this blog we’re taking a trip back to the mid-1960s, a time when writer/director Kineto Shindo delivered two unforgettable J-horror classics. Both of these movies were filmed in stark black-and-white, are available on Blu-ray and streaming via The Criterion Collection and well worth watching if you’re in the mood for vintage Japanese scares. Let’s take a quick peek and see what they have to offer modern audiences.
First up is 1964’s Onibaba (Demon Hag), which tells the tale of two women clawing for survival in feudal Japan. In these bleak times, they are forced to exploit critically-injured samurai and strip them of their goods simply to survive. If you've seen Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto starring the incomparable Toshiro Mifune (Part 1 of my favorite movie trilogy of all-time!), the concept of desperate women scouring the battlefield to collect the armor of samurai will no doubt feel very familiar. But the lavishly-dressed glam-scavengers of Samurai seem downright privileged in comparison to Onibaba's bloodthirsty duo, who actually commit murder to further their gains. It's a miserable existence, and things immediately go from bad to worse when their lives are interrupted by the appearance of a local peasant returning from war. Soon the three are caught up in a web of intrigue and deceit that threatens to undo them all.
It’s difficult to discuss Onibaba further without revealing spoilers so I won’t dive any further into the actual plot. I will say it’s a very entertaining film all-around, although extremely heavy on human drama for the first hour or so. The most popular jidaigeki (period piece) films develop this type of story in a chanbara (swordplay) environment, intertwining drama and action to keep things moving along. But there are no samurai heroes in this film, no epic sword duels, no Toshiro Mifune to wow us with his commanding presence. What we have here is the lowest of the low, desperate people who will do literally anything simply to live another day. It can make for a challenging viewing experience, especially if you’re expecting thrills right off the bat.
If you can stay with Onibaba until the last portion of the film then you’re in for a real treat, the visuals are chilling and will likely stick with you for some time. Just be prepared for a lot of non-spooky drama leading up to that point. And oh yeah, don’t bother watching the trailer as it pretty much gives the best parts away.
Next we have 1968’s Kuroneko (Black Cat), and it’s my favorite of the two films. This movie tells the story of two women who are murdered by bandits only to reappear as vengeful spirits inhabiting a secluded cottage deep in the woods. Together they haunt the shadowy forest in vaguely feline forms, preying on wandering samurai. If some of this sounds familiar it's because it is; the two movies take a vastly different approach to similar themes. Of course this is no surprise to anyone who follows the genre, the vengeful spirit is common throughout many J-horror films, and indeed Japanese superstition and folklore in general.
Like Onibaba, a love story lies at the root of Kuroneko, although it could be argued that Onibaba's onscreen interludes are more lust than love. Unlike Onibaba, Kuroneko starts off with a bang and manages to stay in supernatural mode throughout. For this reason alone it's a better viewing option for those who are simply in it for the spooks and scares. The special effects and camera work are particularly inventive, especially when you consider that this is a fairly low-budget production from the 1960s. There are a ton of cool visuals whenever the women are in spirit mode, which is pretty much all the time. Some of the effects are so subtle—such as the cottage rooftop shifting eerily through the treetops in the moonlight—that I seriously wonder if theater audiences managed to catch everything back in the day. The benefit of a rewind button is definitely a bonus here!
Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba and Kuroneko are compelling examples of J-horror cinema in its earliest form. I definitely recommend watching both (preferably as a double feature!), but if you're only watching one then I have to give it to Kuroneko. It starts with the thrills right away and rarely lets up, and fans of modern J-horror will appreciate the connection. - BW