BY THE END of the '60s, black-and-white film had become the medium of the broke filmmaker and the auteur. Director Kaneto Shindô spent the decade making monochrome cinema his signature, controlling light and shadow with the deftness of a master painter.
Similar in tone and content to Shindô's early masterpiece, Onibaba, 1968's Black Cat presents an ancient Japan drenched in dread and civil unease. The film opens with a young woman (Kiwako Taichi) and her stepmother (Nobuko Otowa) being raped and murdered by marauding soldiers. Kichiemon Nakamura plays the samurai Gintoki, the woman's husband, who returns from war to find his home pillaged. Moreover, rumors are spreading that samurai are being seduced by two vengeful ghosts; Gintoki's master (Kei Satô) tasks him with seeking out the ghosts and killing them, unaware that the spirits are those of Gintoki's wife and daughter.
Shindô's finest trick is making the audience empathize with the heartsick ghosts as they pitilessly dispose of samurai; the tension then builds naturally as Gintoki goes through the same paces as his fallen comrades. In the end, the horror in Black Cat comes not from the supernatural but the societal. In extreme circumstances, Shindô warns, people can be just as terrifying as vengeful spirits.