With seemingly everyone gearing up for Halloween, a blog dedicated to monster media really ought to join the celebration, shouldn’t it? To that end, we’ll be having a series of articles posted during the weeks leading up to Halloween focusing on appropriate seasonal subjects.
For this installment: the Wolf Man, or, to avoid legal action from Universal Studios, the werewolf. Much like Frankenstein (covered last time), the werewolf is an iconic staple of monsterdom, and much like Frankenstein, there aren’t a whole lot of Japanese werewolf stories out there. That’s not to say that werewolf characters aren’t ubiquitous, it’s just that when they do show up they tend to play second fiddle to a vampire character (who’s usually the protagonist; stupid vampires). Despite this, the werewolf has had some time in the spotlight in Japanese horror media, and to that end I composed a list of top-five recommended Japanese werewolf films:
5) The inclusion of The Beast and the Magic Sword (1983) on this list might strike a raw nerve, because strictly speaking, it’s a Spanish movie directed/written by and starring Paul Naschy. However, it was filmed and set mostly in Japan, with Japanese actors in supporting roles, including Jigoku star Shigeru Amachi. I’m a sucker for east-meets-west genre films ( e.g. The Silent Stranger, Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires) so this samurai vs. lycanthrope flick really clicked with me. Plus, you get to see a werewolf wrestle a tiger!
NSFW warning on the trailer:
4) Crest of the Wolf (1973) and Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975) share a slot because both movies were based on the same source material, albeit from different studios (Toho and Toei, respectively). Well, sort of. You see, Kazumasa Hirai’s Wolf Guy opus is extensive, with at least five light novel series and two manga lines, so the movies chose to adapt different branches of the same narrative: Crest of the Wolf (AKA Horror of the Wolf) from the Wolf Guy series, and Wolf Guy (AKA Howl the Wolf Man) from the Adult Wolf Guy series (confused yet? I think I am!). The Toho film, from their tokustatsu go-to at the time Jun Fukuda, is the more “monster movie” of the pair and definitely features a more elaborate werewolf costume. The Toei movie, on the other hand (which I’ve written about before) is more of a martial arts flick, directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi and starring Sonny Chiba. And if that double features fails to slake your Wolf Guy thirst, you can also track down the anime and remake manga, all of which are filled with heavy helpings of sex & violence!
Fun fact: the 1971 light novels were officially released in English during the mid-1980s. (I’ve been attempting to track ’em down, without much luck.) And before you ask, yes, Rumiko Takahashi (Mermaid Forest, Inuyasha) did the illustrations.
3) Can I put a movie that’s never been officially released on this list? Good, because what has been screened of The Legendary Beast Wolfman vs. Godzilla (1983) has been awesome. Long lost to obscurity and misinformation, it turns out that this not-quite-official feature-length Godzilla movie was actually filmed at Toho during off-hours by staff members who had previously worked on the Godzilla movies of the 1970s, placing it at a weird intersection of canon and fanwork (this kind of thing actually happens quite often with Japanese doujinshi). The movie has resurfaced in recent years due to western fan efforts, and now its prospects of actual distribution are better than ever.
2) The two Kibakichi films (2004) currently sit in the center of Tomoo Haraguchi’s yokai cycle, and while you could certainly make a case for diminishing returns throughout (Sakuya>Kibakichi>Kibakichi 2>Death Kappa), you could also argue that they’re the zenith of his efforts (it’s hard to say, since both Sakuya and Kibakichi are pretty good). Set in a feudal Japan where yokai are hunted by the government, our hero is a drifting ronin who breezes into town to stoically defend the downtrodden and slash the bad guys, before taking off for the next adventure. Also: he’s a werewolf. It’s sort of a shame that only two films were produced; I could easily see this being a long-running franchise like so many other samurai heroes, only with a supernatural twist. I think the yokai effects in these two movies trump those in Sakuya, while the kappa costume was actually recycled for Death Kappa. Plus, the score by Kenji Kawai kicks.
1) Wolf Children (2009), to the possible chagrin of everyone reading, is not a horror film. It’s a romance and coming-of-age story, and hands-down the single best werewolf movie Japan has ever produced. Directed by Mamoru Hosoda (Summer Wars, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), it’s a poignant and frequently heartwarming/breaking story of a young single mother coping with the usual difficulties of bringing up two children, and the unusual difficulties of said children turning back and forth into wolf pups. Despite being about, y’know, werewolves, it’s really a universal tale of love, growing up, and raising kids torn between two cultures. I can’t say a whole lot more without gushing, so just go watch it.
Hey, while we’re at it, let’s talk werewolf manga & TV shows:
5) Wolf’s Rain was a big hit on [adult swim] back when it was starting up (mostly among the goth girl demographic) and as such I would be remiss if I failed to at least give it a nod. Set in a world where wolves pose as humans to prevent their extinction, it’s, shall we say, rather moody.
4) Okay, the protagonist of Killing Bites is technically a werebadger, but I figure that’s close enough to a werewolf for our purposes. The recent manga series has been gaining traction in Japan with tie-ins to mobile and card games, and seems particularly popular with the cosplayer set.
3) Ōkami Nante Kowakunai is a one-shot manga from Yoshihiro Togashi (Yu Yu Hakusho, Level E) from before he got burned out on Hunter X Hunter. Focusing on a teenager trying to balance his vulpine nature with his wooing of a non-werewolf classmate, the whole thing is charming and cute.
2) A big part of the inclusion of Lycanthrope Leo on this list is simply its ready availability. The violent action series was perfectly in line with Viz’s spat of hardcore monster battler manga released in the 90’s (e.g. Guyver), so it was one of the first manga I ever encountered. I sort of question the “lycanthrope” part, though, as he looks rather like a lion to me.
1) You’ll probably think I messed up, because my top pick for a werewolf-centric manga/anime series is called Vampire. Well, fear not, in this case the blame lies wholly with manga god Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka was no stranger to turning his characters into wolves (see: Ode to Kirihito, Phoenix: Sun), but Vampire is his most ambitious project on that front, particularly the TV series version. Filmed in live-action, the human-to-wolf transformations were rotoscoped, and then the monsters themselves were anime characters interacting with a live-action backdrop. Not bad for 1968, whether it confusedly deems the creature that turns into a wolf at the full moon a “vampire” or not.
So, that’s my list. Upset about the lack of mention for Until the Full Moon? Livid over the omission of Red Sword? Speak up! There are several Japanese werewolf stories that didn’t make the list, so if your favorite’s not here, by all means, leave a comment. After all, I haven’t seen everything, and am perfectly capable of simply forgetting something great.