While living in New York City more than a decade ago, I had the precious and fortunate experience of seeing a 35mm restoration of Kaneto Shindo’s 1968 film, KURONEKO (BLACK CAT), courtesy of Janus Films, on the big screen. It made the leap to Criterion’s title catalog not long after, joining Shindo’s other terrific drama-horror film, ONIBABA (1964) in the Criterion Closet, a free-movie giveaway repository as prestigious as it is inaccessible to the general public. This not a boast about having seen a damn good film in a cool city before it got an accessible release in North America but to draw a direct comparison between the acclaimed KURONEKO and a totally different Japanese horror-period-drama released the same year that leveraged the same folkloric entity to much less worldwide notoriety. Do you like ghosts? Do you also like cats? If the answer to both questions is “yes” then chances are good that you will also like Yoshihiro Ishikawa’s 1968 chiller, BAKENEKO: A VENGEFUL SPIRIT (a.k.a. GHOST CAT OF THE CURSED SWAMP).
Sometime during the Edo shogunate, a vassal named Naoshige Nabeshima (Ryohei Uchida) committed treason against his master, killed him by encasing him in mud, and tried to force his wife to marry him instead. Rather than suffer the fate of a forced marriage to a homicidal maniac, she took her cat into the local swamp to drown together. Following these events, anyone who came close to the swamp was cursed by awful circumstances leading to their own tragic fate.
Years later, villagers are putting on a spectacular display of fireworks along the river to celebrate a festival dedicated solely to lifting the swamp curse. As he floats downriver on his boat with several councilors, Naoshige Nabeshima, now a lord, eyes a pretty woman named Yukiji (Kyoko Mikage) on the shoreline and sets his mind on forcibly taking her as a wife (regardless of her own feelings on the matter). When Yukiji’s father visits the lord soon after and learns of his intentions, he mentions that she’s engaged to Yuki Jonosuke (Kotaro Satomi). This fact, nor the Jonosuke family’s legacy as the “head of the treasury for generations,” does much to dissuade Nabeshima or his right-hand man, Shuzen Kuroiwa (Hiroshi Nawa) from their bullying posture. If Yukiji refuses the arrangement, her entire family will be beheaded by his military command, led by Ukon Shibayama (Bunta Sugawara).
When Yuki learns of the unfavorable circumstances encircling his bride-to-be, he does his best to encourage Yukiji to heed the lord’s demands out of self-preservation, but she asserts her autonomy and states she would rather die than give into the lord’s demands. To his credit, Yuki supports her wishes, and they make plans to escape. Before that scheme comes to fruition, however, they come across an abandoned, mewing cat caked in mud near the edges of a marsh and not long after, their misfortune escalates into brutal and unrelenting chaos.
BAKENEKO: A VENGEFUL SPIRIT is a movie that succeeds on the strength of its atmosphere through dynamic play between light and shadow along with excellent shot composition (cinematographer Shigeru Akatsuka) and editing (credit to Kozo Horiike). The central story of the tragic lovers is engaging without leaning too much into pure cliche, and its villains are appropriately despicable and unsympathetic. Ghost-cats (kaibyo, or supernatural cat) in Japanese cinema can take on different forms – from Nobuo Nakagawa’s BLACK CAT MANSION and KURONEKO to Ishikawa’s *other* ghost-cat film, THE GHOST CAT OF OTAMA POND, and Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HAUSU – but here, the ghost-cat-human hybrid employs a theatrical approach with intense kabuki make-up and dynamic facial expressions to convey a crazed, animalistic state. The ghost-cat’s supernatural abilities are expressed through shapeshifting and physics-defying leaps, and its beastly nature is exhibited through vicious attacks that often end in flesh-eating.
Ishikawa had more credits as writer or assistant director in a film career that, intentional or not, he book-ended with two ghost-cat films, but he’s a steady hand with a strong sense of both style and vision. While a good portion of the story occurs indoors, Ishikawa makes good use of his exteriors by staging multiple sword-fights with well-paced action, including one sequence where Jonosuke fights off a steady barrage of attackers while traversing through a drainage ditch. The cursed swamp is the most pivotal outdoor location of all, and through the change of the tone of the music and sudden shifts in character demeanor as they become aware of their surroundings, it feels suitably menacing. (Lots of fog helps too). The film offers really solid production design all around.
While BAKENEKO: A VENGEFUL SPIRIT was not my first ghost-cat film, and it won’t be the last, and it likely isn’t the best, it’s a solid entry in an interesting sub-genre of Japanese horror cinema that can be enjoyed by ghost lovers, cat lovers, and dog lovers alike.