Yone (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi), who live in a house in a bamboo grove, are raped and murdered by soldiers, and their house is burned down. A black cat appears, licking at the bodies.
The women return as ghosts with the appearance of fine ladies, who wait at Rajōmon. They find samurai and bring them to an illusory mansion in the bamboo grove where the burnt-out house was. They seduce and then kill the samurai like cats, tearing their throats with teeth.
Meanwhile, in northern Japan a battle is taking place with the Emishi. A young man, Hachi (Nakamura Kichiemon II), fortuitously kills the enemy general, Kumasunehiko. He brings the severed head to show the governor, Minamoto no Raikō (Kei Sato). He lies that he fought the general under the name Gintoki. He is made a samurai in acknowledgement of his achievement. When he goes looking for his mother and bride, he finds their house burned down and the women missing.
Raikō tells Gintoki to find and destroy the ghosts who are killing the samurai. Gintoki encounters the two women and realizes that they are his mother and wife. They have made a pact with the underworld to return and kill samurai in revenge for their deaths. Because Gintoki has become a samurai, by their pact they must kill him, but the bride breaks her pledge to spend seven nights of love with Gintoki. Then, because she has broken the pact, she is condemned to the underworld. Gintoki lies to Raikō that he has destroyed one of the ghosts.
Gintoki encounters the other ghost again at Rajōmon trying to seduce samurai. After seeing her reflection as a ghost in a pool of water, he attacks her with his sword, cutting off her arm, which takes on the appearance of a cat's leg. She flees but then returns to retrieve the arm, then disappears by flying through a roof. Finally Gintoki is left flailing his sword around in the illusory mansion. The mansion disappears, and the film ends with Gintoki lying face up in the snow with his sword in hand.
Yūsuke Suzumura of Hosei University has speculated that the film's title was deliberately intended to allude to the Ryūnosuke Akutagawa story In a Grove (Yabu no naka in Japanese), as well as Akira Kurosawa's film version of the story. Although the Japanese title literally means "a black cat in a bamboo grove", the phrase yabu no naka in Japanese is also used idiomatically to refer to a mystery that is difficult to unravel. Suzumura also identified the legends of Minamoto no Raikō as an influence on the film: since Raikō himself appears in the film, it is likely that the film's protagonist's name Gintoki (銀時, "silver-time") is a reference to the name of Raikō's legendary follower Kintoki (金時, "gold-time").Kichiemon Nakamura as Gintoki
Nobuko Otowa as the Mother
Kei Sato as Raiko
Hideo Kanze the Mikado
Taiji Tonoyama as the farmer
Yoshinobu Ogawa as Raiko follower
Rokko Toura as a warlord
Kuroneko was released theatrically in Japan on February 24, 1968 where it was distributed by Toho. It was released in the United States by Toho International with English subtitles on July 1968.
It was placed in competition at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, but the festival was cancelled due to the events of May 1968 in France.
In Japan the film won two awards from the Mainichi Film Concours. Nobuko Otowa won the award for Best Actress for her work in Kuroneko and Operation Negligee, and Kiyomi Kuroda won the award for Best Cinematography for this and Operation Negligee.
From retrospective reviews, Manohla Dargis describes it as "a ghost story that’s more eerie than unnerving, and often hauntingly lovely". Maitland McDonagh writes that it is "darkly seductive" and "sleek, hair-raisingly graceful, and ready to take its place alongside the other landmarks of Japanese horror history". Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported an approval rating of 94%, based on 18 reviews, with a rating average of 8/10.