Horror of the Wolf (狼の紋章, Masashi Matsumoto, 1973)

“All I wanted was to live a quiet life alone” a teenage werewolf laments unfairly forced into a human world which has no real place for him while he can find no accommodation with its innate cruelty. Adapted from the manga by Kazumasa Hirai & Hisashi Sakaguchi, Horror of the Wolf (狼の紋章, Okami no Monsho) is part high school delinquent movie and part psychedelic werewolf exploitation film in which the hero finds himself drawn into a weird supernatural battle with a crazed nationalist while falling for his beautiful high school teacher who perhaps uncomfortably reminds him of his late mother. 

Akira Inugami (Taro Shigaki) spent the early years of his life in Alaska playing with the local wolves until his anthropologist parents were murdered “due to suspicions of spy activity”. After spending some time raised by the wolves, Akira was then taken in by his fantastically wealthy aunt, the CEO of the top chain of Japanese restaurants in the US where he was schooled until returning to Japan. As the film opens, he’s attacked by a gang of thugs, refusing to fight back and later stabbed but cooly removing the knife from his stomach as if it were only an inconvenience to him. Witnessing this strange event, school teacher Miss Aoshika (Yoko Ichiji) promptly faints, only to receive a shock the next day when the man she thought she saw murdered the night before shows up as a mysterious transfer student at her elite academy. 

Hinting at an underlying theme of class conflict and institutional corruption, the school doesn’t really want to take Akira because he’s a troublemaker who’s always getting into fights, though this claim seems to conflict with his ongoing refusal to engage with physical violence, but is reluctant to dismiss him because his aunt is so very wealthy. The same goes for his rival, Haguro (Yusaku Matsuda), whose father is a yakuza boss. Haguro is the leader of the school’s delinquent thugs, a distinctly cool presence who wanders around brandishing a katana which he is frequently seen unsheathing with the Japanese flag in the background while his family crest appears to feature an eagle reminiscent of those seen in Nazi Germany.

Nationalism aside, the film has an ongoing preoccupation with animal imagery not only with Akira’s wolfishness but Aoshika whose name literally means “blue deer” often appearing in front of a wooden deer ornament while Akira’s apartment seems to be kitted out with AstroTurf or at least a vibrant green carpet with the appearance of grass as well as occasionally shifting into an idyllic dreamscape where he can frolic cheerfully in the wild. When Aoshika comes looking for him, he tells her that he’s simply wearing a wolf mask and refuses to take it off, urging her to leave him in peace because “women are so lacking in delicacy and so overbearing it drives me nuts”. 

Akira is not alone in his apparent misogyny, Aoshika is violently raped on three separate occasions the first being by her own students which the headmaster brushes off as a rather frequent occurrence giving rise to the question of why she continues to work at the school, where she is apparently the only female member of staff, if she continually faces such traumatic violence. Her final assault meanwhile comes at the hands of Haguro who seems to be performing some kind of bizarre ritual while preparing to face off against Akira who saved her from a previous attack by street punks while in his werewolf guise.  

Aside from his brooding intensity, there are few clues to Akira’s true identity other than his ability to heal in rapid time following injury and skilful athleticism in dodging attacks. Repeatedly referred to as a “lone wolf”, partly an insult based on his name (which literally means “dog god” and is used to describe those possessed by the spirit of a dog), Akira adopts a pacifist stance towards his aggressors refusing to fight back later telling Haguro that they’re simply not worth the bother yet his refusal to fight is mistaken for a philosophical position that eventually makes him a figurehead for a gang of leftist teens trying to halt the culture of violence in the school in what seems to be an ironic swipe at the student protests even if also setting up a challenge to Haguro’s crypto-fascist authoritarian thuggery. 

A curiously avant-garde affair, Masashi Matsumoto’s teen wolf drama features striking composition with frequent use of solarisation and an almost mythical opening sequence detailing the hero’s origin story amid the snows of Alaska, along with incongruous practical effects such as the furry wolf mask Akira often wears in his apartment in his half-transformed state. It is also somewhat lurid, unnecessarily revelling in the sexualised violence directed at the heroine with three lengthy rape scenes of varying intensity. Even so in its undeniable strangeness and eventual pathos for those who cannot survive in “a cruel world made by humans” Horror of the Wolf reserves its sympathy for the outsiders unwilling to submit to a world of human cruelty.


Call from Darkness (真夜中の招待状, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1981)

“In today’s society, everyone is warped in some way” according to the investigative psychologist at the centre of Yoshitaro Nomura’s Call From Darkness (真夜中の招待状, Mayonaka no Shotaijo, AKA Midnight Invitation). Adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo, Nomura’s late career psychological mystery places the dark past at the centre of familial implosion as increasingly estranged brothers find themselves falling victim to the same “curse”, called to destruction by the extreme resentment of one who feels himself wronged both personally and on a familial level. 

The film opens, however, with the heroine, Keiko (Asami Kobayashi), visiting a psychiatrist and visibly perturbed by the strange, twitching figures which surround her in the waiting room. The patient immediately before her is irritated by the psychiatrist’s “childish games”, eventually leaving the room in exasperation with the medical staff who refuse to take his symptoms seriously, convincing him that his pain is all in his mind and his lame leg is merely a manifestation of repressed trauma. Nevertheless, Keiko has not come for herself but for her fiancé, Tamura (Kaoru Kobayashi), who has suffered a nervous breakdown after all three of his brothers mysteriously disappeared leaving him feeling as if he must be next. As Dr. Aizawa (Etsushi Takahashi) points out, disappearances are a matter for the police but he does agree to help treat Tamura’s paranoia in the belief that his family circumstances are a series of unfortunate and improbable coincidences rather than a concerted effort to wipe out his bloodline. 

As it turns out, that is not quite true and Tamura perhaps has reason to worry but then there is no one targeting him, in fact no one very interested in him at all, but still he will be sucked into a vortex of guilt and pain despite having, as it turns out, a different name and minimal connection to those who are his brothers by blood. The youngest of the four boys, Tamura was adopted into another family who had no children of their own at eight years old. His mother had already passed away and after his father too died not long after his adoption he never returned to his ancestral home in Kumamoto and had little contact with either of his brothers besides Kazuo (Tsunehiko Watase) with whom he had remained close and who would often visit him when he came to Tokyo on business. The fact of his brothers’ disappearances does not perhaps concern him emotionally, at least until Kazuo too goes missing, as much as its strangeness threatens his ordinary, conventional life not to mention his engagement to Keiko whose parents do, as expected, urge her to reconsider in light of the dark shadows around Tamura’s family history. 

That’s perhaps one reason Keiko is so keen to delve to the bottom of the mystery, not only to cure Tamura’s depression but to defend her choice of husband and therefore the future direction of her life. Aizawa, meanwhile, proves a strange and slightly dubious guide despite his presentation as a figure of infinite authority. He persuades the pair that the answer lies in dreams, intrigued by a recurring nightmare Kazuo had apparently been having about travelling through tunnels and valleys towards a mysterious castle, a dream that Tamura eventually begins dreaming too. Aizawa and Keiko find themselves making a bizarre visit to a spirit medium, while Aizawa later recommends experimental hypnotherapy treatments, diagnoses based on glanced body language, and describes the oldest brother, Junkichi (Makoto Fujita), as a probable misanthropic sadist based on a series of drawings he made of a man with serious deformities. He later walks back some of these statements as strategy in his quest to help Tamura, but you have to admit that his practice is esoteric to say the least. 

Central to events, the deformed man turns out not to be an invention of Junkichi but a very real “victim” and perhaps symbol of the “warped” society Aizawa alludes to at the film’s conclusion. We learn that the young man suffered from rheumatism and was recommended experimental treatment which led to his deformity and apparently left him brain damaged, unable to look after himself. The mysterious calls the brothers receive late in the night are reminders of the harm they have caused, beckoning them towards a spiritual retribution though there is of course no real way to atone, the young man can never be restored. It’s this sense of dread that leads Aizawa and others to describe what’s happened to the brothers as a “curse” though it’s one largely self-imposed if perhaps precipitated by the intense resentment of the wounded parties which sends itself through the air, and the telephone lines, to convince the brothers they must pay though, in real terms, the young man’s fate is not really their fault only that of the doctors who developed the drug and administered it if, as Aizawa implies, they were aware of what could happen if they went too far. 

Nevertheless, it seems that responsibility must be taken though the extents of that responsibility, rather than the secrecy or the events themselves, eventually corrupt the previously pure and strong relationship between Keiko and Tamura. He wants to end it with money, she is disappointed in his cynical conservatism and lack of compassion. Aizawa meanwhile, believes that the brothers were drawn to death, tired of the business of living and perhaps looking for an exit and an excuse to give in to despair. Nomura slips into painful negative for his explanatory flashbacks, while undercutting a sense of reality through the dissolves and superimpositions of his ethereal dream sequences, but finally returns us to the “warped” society of the present day as the survivors look for new ways of living with a newfound darkness. 


Tsubaki Sanjuro (椿三十郎, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2007)

Tsubaki Sanjiro horizontalGenerally speaking, where a film has been inspired by already existing source material, it’s unfair to refer to it as a “remake” even if there has been an iconic previous adaptation. That said, in the case of Tsubaki Sanjuro (椿三十郎), “remake” is very much at the heart of the idea as the film uses the exact same script as the massively influential 1962 version directed by Akira Kurosawa which also starred his muse Toshiro Mifune. Director Yoshimitsu Morita is less interested in returning to the story’s novelistic roots than he is in engaging with Kurosawa’s cinematic legacy.

Sanjuro is a more populist offering from Kurosawa in any case and adheres to a fairly simple plot which picks up with the hero of the previous year’s Yojimbo, still a wandering ronin living on his wits and his sword. In actuality the script was altered a little to connect the two films even though the original novel has nothing to do with Yojimbo. Anyway, the story is set in a small town in which the hotheaded young men have got a bee in their bonnets about corruption at the higher levels and have taken it upon themselves to do something about it. Unfortunately they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into and are about to make things even worse. Sanjuro duly arrives, overhears their idiocy and gives them some advice before heroically saving all their lives through cleverness. Later, when one of the young men’s relatives is kidnapped, Sanjuro decides to stay and help them sort this giant mess out before they do themselves a mischief.

Obviously, Morita uses the same script so Tsubaki Sanjuro has exactly the same plot as the 1962 film. This does lend it a slightly uncanny quality as its use of language and the structure of the script itself are much more of their own time – a fact brought out by the very theatrical performances of the only two female faces in the film who speak in very pointed and deliberate manners. That said, what Morita attempts to do is bring out even more of the ironic, dark comedy that underpins Kurosawa’s film but is very much played as background. Morita isn’t playing it as farce or as parody, but brings the same wry, almost mocking eye to the proceedings as he brings to to his contemporary satirical comedies.

Bayside Shakedown star Yuji Oda is cast in the role of Sanjuro but really of course he’s expected to play Mifune. He doesn’t have Mifune’s sheer presence and force of personality – who does? but he does a good job of adopting his wiseguy, casual grifter with a sentimental heart persona. We don’t know who Sanjuro is – he gives what is fairly obvious to be a fake name and seems to be a masterless swordsman content to travel in rags and live on the “kindess” of strangers, but you get the feeling he’s already got it all figured out and always knows the best way to handle any situation no matter how desperate it might seem.

If what Morita is trying to do is make a modern Kurosawa movie, he somewhat succeeds. Though he throws in the odd homage to the Kurosawa corpus, mostly he opts for a contemporary approach though one with an old fashioned kind of stateliness – no handheld camera here, wide and tracking shots rule the day. The score too remains in the classical jidaigeki realm with obvious call outs to Sanjuro’s own western leaning themes.

Morita himself can be something of a chameleon in the director’s chair, his style isn’t so personally defined but tailored to the project itself which can make him seem a little dull where he isn’t trying to add a layer of experimentation which is the thing which really interests him. Tsubaki Sanjuro’s experimentation is closer to mirroring – he’s not doing a Gus Van Sant Psycho style experiment, but he’s refracting Kurosawa for a modern audience raised on TV drama and idol stars. It works, to be sure, but perhaps it worked better for Kurosawa (unfair as that is to say).

Ultimately, Tsubaki Sanjuro is something of a curate’s egg. As it is intended to, the film has its generic sides in its fairly ordinary modern samurai movie aesthetic, though it never overplays these and cleverly adds in a more modern approach with a perfectly matched subtlety. Its cast of young men skew younger than in the original film making their naivety even more believable and lending weight to Oda’s performance which captures both his character’s gruff aloofness and his instant born leader abilities. Enjoyable enough in its own right, Tsubaki Sanjuro can’t reach the heights of the film which inspired it, but then perhaps it is not intended to, but simply to entertain with a familiar tale retold as broad comedy rather than mild satire.


Available with English subtitles on region free DVD in the US from Bonzai Media Corp. RSP

Unsubtitled trailer: