Today’s selection: Yellow Fangs (1990, dir. Sonny Chiba)
Subgenre: Kaibutsu (sort of?)
Available from: Cinema Epoc
It’s rare to see Sonny Chiba in the director’s chair, and Yellow Fangs (or, as it was called in Japan, Remains: The Beautiful Ones) might just be why. Made as a celebration of the Japan Action Club’s 20th anniversary, it flopped hard, bankrupting the JAC and forcing Chiba to work under an alias in the years that followed. And while it’s not a terrible movie, it’s understandable why this happened: audiences were likely looking for karate street fights, samurai, or superheroics, and instead they got a flick about a killer bear.
Based on a true story (words I’ve almost never uttered when talking tokusatsu), the film details the efforts and interpersonal relations of several hunters trying to take down a giant bear (named Red Spots) that killed over a dozen women and terrorized Hokkaido in 1915. It’s difficult to classify: while there is sort of a monster, Red Spots is a more-of-less normal bear costume (as opposed to the mutant bear from Prophecy), and it doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time. There are certainly a lot of impressive stunts, but they’re handled so casually in the film, without close ups or slow motion, that it might not register with the audience how impressive they are (so, not really an action movie, either). However, the fact that it is still about a rampaging killer bear (with a name, no less) negates the idea that it’s a plain old character-driven romance or period drama, too.
Beyond the question of categorization, the more important question should be “well, is it worth watching?” In this case, I’d say yes. I’ve already mentioned the nearly invisible stunt work, but there’s also gorgeous cinematography of the snow-covered Hokkaido landscape (it’s worth noting that Kinji Fukusaku was overall supervisor for the film), the tsundere relationship between one of the hunters and the girl that gets in their way, and a decent musical score from lead actor Hiroyuki Sanada. Throughout are deep themes of gender roles, environmentalism, familial obligations… plus, a frenetic sequence of Red Spots rampaging through a crowded town ought not to be missed. In the action scenes it becomes especially clear that this is Sonny Chiba’s movie, not just some sort of cipher for Fukusaku, so I gotta wonder what other works director Chiba could have created in the parallel universe where this movie actually succeeded financially.