Haunting atmosphere, stunning visuals, deadly beauty. Shindō Kaneto’s visually stunning films Kuroneko (1968) and Irezumi (1966) reveal that the human psyche is powerless against life’s horror, and that only through experiencing great injustice can the confines of reality give way to reveal one’s true inner self.
Beneath entrancingly stunning exteriors lie unrelenting evils in the films Kuroneko (1968) and Irezumi (1966.) Author Shindō Kaneto explores both the awakening power of tragedy and the animalistic nature of human kind through his depictions of the film’s doomed femme fatales Otsuya, Shige and Yone. Writhe with nihilism, each tale shows that human beings are powerless against the horrors of the living, and that only through experiencing great injustice can the confines of reality give way to reveal one’s true inner self. In order to overcome the psychological pain with which they have been branded, each character employs an intangible psychological force to aid in their quest for revenge. Shindō’s players struggle to wield these new strengths which have awakened inside them, and are unable to fully gain agency over their inner suffering. While the question of who is actually in control is constantly at hand, we ultimately find our blood-thirsty lady killers to merely be victims of their painful circumstance, unable to escape their newly realized inner evils.
Atmosphere in each film plays an important role in setting the stage for a psychological tug-of-war. Juxtaposed with hauntingly moody backdrops, our femme fatales radiate, their power symbolized in seemingly illuminant costumes and abstract lighting. Kuroneko’s Shige dons wispy white garments which mirror the foggy bamboo groves surrounding her home. Her ethereal power is spotlighted in the blackness of night with stylistically contrastive lighting, just as strength emanates from Yone’s staccato ritual dances and boldly patterned garb. With the help of director Yasuzō Masamura’s stylistic visuals, Shindō’s Irezumi comes to life. His main muse, Otsuya, flaunts vibrant kimonos which effortlessly pop against soft, silent snow, dimly lit rooms and misty forests. Her power is so unwieldy, it nearly oozes from the lusty reds and blaring yellows of her costume. Bathed in the steam of a bath, her spider tattoo twitches in anticipation of malevolence.
Tragedy awakens insatiably vengeful spirits in each of Shindō’s narratives, and newly awakened femme fatales battle with their inner powers toward inevitable doom. Irezumi’s vibrant beauty Otsuya is torn from the man she loves, sold to a Geisha house and tattooed with a horrifying Joro spider, the image of which insinuates death and foreboding. This inked creature across her back quickly comes to represent her psychological torment and freedom from the confines of her former self. With deep scars from her tragic fate, she is reborn as a conniving murderess with a vendetta against all men and a license to kill.
While one may argue the injustice of Otsuya’s kidnapping caused a change in her character, early evidence suggests it did not enact a change, but rather enabled her to fully embrace her genuine self. The film allows small glimpses of Otsuya’s internal demons even prior to unfortunate events taking place. In order to gain autonomy, she convinces her hesitant lover Shinsuke to steal her father’s money and run away with her. Swayed by love and beauty, he is reluctantly inclined to acquiesce. On a still snowy night, the pair begin their escape, the timid Shinsuke still unsure of their course of actions. As he questions Otsuya and begs that they return home, she dramatically threatens to waste her life by jumping off a bridge, and expresses her naïve desire for a life of excitement and passion—specifically, like that of a Geisha. Beauty, seduction and manipulation are already at her fingertips, yet it takes that drastic life event for her to recognize and claim these powers. Trapped by the spiraling manipulations of misfortune; Otsuya’s whole being is consumed with the power of self-awareness. Through her trauma she is able to embrace her sadistic self-obsession, and accept that Shinsuke is, and was, nothing more than a pawn to her will.
Otsuya’s obsession, coupled with unsurpassed beauty and new station as a highly sought-after geisha soon swells into a cancerous power as the ideal of her Joro spider gains an agency of its own. With Shinsuke once again caught in her web of deceit, she plots to kill her foes without remorse. Shinsuke is tortured by regret, and slowly comes to realize that his lover has indulged in demons past the point of no return. In trying to stop her, he is again bested by her persuasive lies, and becomes yet another victim in her fight for survival. In a violent act of justice, Otsuya meets her demise at the hands of the one who gifted her with the image of the spider.
Kuroneko’s anti-heroines are similarly marked by tragic fate. Set in a war-torn Edo countryside, a roving band of warriors brutally ravage a helpless mother (Yone) and daughter-in-law (Shige,) leaving them to burn in shame. The grim image of their lifeless bodies slain amongst charred ruins is made all the more eerie by a solitary black cat’s moaning cry against the silence. Empowered by gruesome injustice, their restless souls vow revenge, rousing the dark forces of bakeneko (demon cats) to aid in their bloody path of retribution.
In battling with her inner humanity and, quite literally, animalistic power, Shige’s struggles contrast with those in Irezumi. Where Otsuya’s tragedy allowed her to embrace her true, manipulative self, Shige is unable to fully submit to her pain. Her inner strife is illuminated through subtleties of expression and movement. When reunited with her mortal husband Gintoki, Shige’s once sharp stare is consumed in bewildered longing, clearly distraught with the realization she must murder her loved one or perish herself. Greatly conflicted with the dilemma before her, Shige is no longer able to uphold her pact of vengeance, choosing instead to relinquish her supernatural powers for seven days of passionate happiness with Gintoki. As her love and humanity return, the anguish of her injustice is relieved. Although she had been reborn in hatred following her tragedy, her true self is once again awakened through love. As punishment for breaking her ethereal contract, Shige willingly plummets into the depths of Hell.
Yone is similarly plagued with anguish as she questions her promise to the Gods of Evil when meeting Gintoki. Her once commanding dances waver in despair, yet her commitment to revenge remains unshaken. As Shige sobs over their fate, Yone pleads with reason. “We vowed to kill samurai and drink their blood. We prayed to the spirits of heaven and earth to let us do so. Try to bear it… Be content to watch him from afar (54min).” While she is unwilling to sacrifice her hatred and release her pain, she is content in sparing Gintoki’s life. The added agony of Shige’s broken promise however, destroys every last trace of Yone’s temporal self. The love she once held for her son is wholly taken over by commitment to the bakeneko’s command. Renouncing her humanity, she continues to murder with still greater strength, and for the sake of avenging their sorrows, turns against Gintoki.
Just as Shinsuke became aware that Otsuya’s power had grown out of control, Gintoki comes to realize that his mother’s evil has devoured her. His human connection to her forbids him from destroying her as his master commands, but her evil has grown too great. As they battle, his tormented soul is pushed toward insanity. Torn between defeating the murderous demon and saving his mother, Gintoki perishes in a fit of madness amongst the once-smoldering remains where his mother and wife had died. Again, evil has felled all who dare oppose it.
Shrouded in haunting allure, players in Irezumi and Kuroneko show that in submitting to pain, one is branded by their psychological trauma, hence surrendering all human agency. Born from the heat of injustice, Shindō’s femme fatales are, one-by-one, devoured by their grief. Enslaved by her newly realized evils, Otsuya succumbs to her over indulgence in power. Shige’s true love and real self prove to be no match against her merciless vow of retribution. Yone’s humanity is smothered by the anguish set aflame by trauma. Even auxiliary players in these narratives are helpless in the face of personal pain. In panicked desperation, both Shinsuke and Gintoki are unable to keep hold of their sanity, becoming further victims of inward suffering. Shindō’s vision thus teaches that human kind is too weak to overcome their personal demons, and that vengeance is an indulgent, animalistic impulse whose unwieldy power can only lead one toward self-destruction.