Soundtrack: Hikaru Hayashi / Kuroneko

I spent Halloween this year watching Kuroneko, a supernatural tale of revenge and honor from 1964 directed by Kaneto Shindo. It was time well spent, as I discovered the musical genius of composer Hikaru Hiyashi who scored this memorable film

The film takes place in feudal Japan. Two women living alone are robbed, raped, and killed by a marauding band of starving samurai. The samurai burn down the women’s home to cover their crime, but in the aftermath the family’s pet, a black cat (‘kuroneko’) comes to mourn over their burned bodies, which infuses its owners with supernatural powers. The spirits of the women begin to roam the area exacting revenge upon passing samurai by seducing them and then assuming the form of panthers who rip the throats out of their victims. 

The music Hiyashi created for this odd tale is sparse, but every cue is full of invention. The credit sequence opens with a driving beat from a percussion ensemble comprised of timpani, taiko drums, hand drums and a high pitched instrument that sounds like a pocket knife scraping on a thick piece of bamboo. Suddenly a string section hits a short dissonant chord and the music stops for the opening scene. 

The action of the film is intensely deliberate, requiring restraint. And Hiyashi knows restraint; his cues are exacting, nothing where it doesn’t belong and not one note or effect too many. Eerie string glissandos suddenly appear and refrain from development before fading to silence. Taiko drums tap out a rhythm underneath low-pitched groans of a large bamboo flute. A wood block is run through a slap spring reverb. Cellos play brief dry ominous tremolos. Hayashi also adds in additional effective electronic sound design employing elements known only to the composer. 

In this story, the samurai who is charged with finding and eliminating the victims’ killer happens to be the son of one of the murdered women-spirits, and the husband of the other. So things get complicated.

I note this plot twist because there is a reunion scene between husband and wife that is scored with the most exquisitely beautiful love music sequence I can remember seeing on screen. A harp, either a traditional orchestral harp or possibly a saung gauk, plays a simple arpeggio while a small string section fills in with lilting chords. Quiet brass comes in here and there, adding density and a bit of dissonance for balance. A vibraphone chimes in with a chromatic run. It’s a musical arrangement that is as unique as it is deeply affecting. A must see: 

Hiyashi’s score is a perfect companion to the imagery of Kiyomi Kuroda, a cinematographer of immense talent. Looking over Kuroda’s filmography, I see that I haven’t seen any of the other films he’s worked on and so my long ‘must see’ list of films has just been expanded.