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Posted 5th April 2009 at 08:30 PM by Sam@Cult Labs
Updated 5th April 2009 at 09:39 PM by Sam@Cult Labs


Masterful director Kaneto Shindo created two haunting classics in the late 60s with Onibaba and Kurenko, a pair of films that explored the theme of female vengeance in the Edo era of Japanese history. While both deal with the aftermath of sexual abuse at the hands of wandering Samurai, Kurenko is the more surreal and dreamlike of the two.

Drawing, like so many Japanese 'horror' films of the era, on traditional folklore, in this case the tale of the Cat's Return, Kurenko introduces us to a mother and her her daughter-in-law, who are attacked in their home by a band of rogue Samurai, who steal their food, commit acts of sexual violence then leave the battered women to burn as they set the homestead ablaze.

After the chaos of the inferno, the camera moves across the charred remnants of the two women's home, where their scorched bodies lie lifeless in the soot and ash. Things then take a turn towards the supernatural, as the family's black cat wanders home to discover his deceased owners. Some kind of supernatural phenomena takes place as the cat laps at the bloody neck of it's mistress, because the two wronged women live on in spectral form....As bloodthirsty cat demons, sworn to vampiric vengeance on all Samurai.

The younger daughter is charged with baiting a honey trap on a lonely road through a shadowy Bamboo grove. She entices the warriors back to their burned out resting ground, which is magically transformed into an elegant residence, where they are plied with Sake until their faculties are sufficiently dimmed, then feasted upon in bloody fashion.

After several kills, the local authorities become nervous,but more trouble is afoot when the husband and son of the two troubled spirits returns home from war, having been press ganged into service following his kidnap from the families meagre farmstead. Now, he comes back a hero, the only survivor of a bloody battle in which he slew the general of a rival army.

The leader of the Samurai covers him in honour and charges him with the disposal of the evil force that is murdering his men in the night, but what will happen when he discovers the terrible fate of his wife and mother...

...and will they keep the pledge they made to suck the blood of ALL samurai, even their own kin?

Kurenko is a feverish nightmare of a film, mixing traditional ghost yarn with high art to startling effect. The film takes place almost entirely in the darkest of nights and the stage sets evoke a strange claustrophobia, both in the spectral home of the ghostly demons, which is a comfortable prison for two tortured souls doomed to hell, and in the eerie bamboo forest, which seems to loom over the characters oppressively, adding an extra, sinister chill to the proceedings.

The performances by the lead actresses are remarkable. The strange scenes of seduction appear to have a very controlled sense of etiquette about them, as they go through a routine of submissive servitude and hospitality before making their kill. This almost stilted, ritualistic style is found throughout the film, slowing the pace but allowing for any number of beautiful, painterly camera set-ups to dazzle the viewer as the director picks out the actors against the ever present gloom via expert lighting.

The whole affair has the feel of a theatrical performance, from the balletic movements of the mother as she attends to her guests to the fight sequences in the forests, where the demonic women fly through the trees, evading the warriors who attempt to fight them.

Kurenko uses the backdrop of a tradition ghost tale to explore the Japanese system of honour and the horror and futility of warfare. The son, having risen through the social ranks, must now decide between family loyalty and his standing among his peers, while the mother and daughter also have a stark choice between their demonic pledge and family, with the price being the damnation of their souls.

With a newly restored print that brings the artful monochrome cinematography to life, improved subtitles and a 24 book featuring in depth essay and a vintage interview with the director, the Masters of Cinema DVD edition of Kurenko really does justice to a classic of Japanese fantastic cinema which adventurous fans of the new wave of J-horror would do well to check out. Asian horror isn't just haunted videotapes and 80s gore epics, lyrical, mesmerizing films like this are the perfect introduction to a more subtle and arguably memorable style of horror.
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