Circuit no ookami

May 26, 2010

Saakitto no ookami (Japan, 1977)

Currently lacking official English title, Circuit no ookami (Circuit Wolf) is a title unlikely to ring the bells of international movie audiences. Fans of Japanese manga may recognize the source material, but overseas this racing epic remains largely unknown. Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi on the other hand needs little introductions – his films Delinquent Girl Boss (1970), Sister Street Fighter (1974) and Karate Bear Fighter (1977) are among the most enjoyable Japanese action movies from the 1970’s.

Circuit no ookami unloads its strongest assets right in the beginning. The film’s opening credits sequence is among the coolest introductions in recent memory, alongside Teruo Ishii’s wonderfully nutty Karate Inferno (1974). Masato Shimon’s theme song could be compared to the greatest tokusatsu TV-show tunes, with the major difference being that this time the song is marred with shots of shiny Lotus Europa Special, rather than super hero battles.

Unlike most of Yamaguchi action movies, Circuit no ookami is family friendly entertainment. Aside sports cars that often steal the spotlight, the film is packed with silly humor, and no violence or sex at all. No doubt this has much to do with the source material. The original Circuit no ookami manga was released in the Weekly Shounen Jump youth magazine in 1975-1979. While “based on comics” has traditionally been as accurate of a description of content with Japanese movies as “based on novel” with American films, Circuit no ookami certainly displays its manga roots in good and bad. From story structure to caricature-like characters Circuit no ookami is comic book come alive.

Those looking for serious minded car movie may be disappointed, although the wide display of impressive sports cars from around the world alone should be enough to spark the interest of any motorhead. Lamborghini Miura P400SV, Ferrari Miura 246GT, BMW 2002 Turbo, Pontiac Firebird Trans am, Ford Mustang Mach 1, Lancia Stratos, and police equipped Nissan Fairlady 240Z are only some examples of the vehicles featured in the movie. Most of the the cars are handled with silk gloves, although the budget has allowed the wrecking of a couple of cheaper models. Aside high way races the film also makes visits to genuine racing events, and thus introducing a handful of real life professional in cameo roles (of which most of the performers were probably happily unaware before – and after – the release of the film).

In terms of storyline Circuit no ookami has little to offer. The protagonist is car mechanic Yuya (Shinya Fubuki) who dreams of becoming a race driver. His daily routine – working with cars, and collecting pictures of his idol Niki Lauda – is interrupted by the appearance of an exotic girl (Mei Yokomoto) and troublesome car maniacs from Jiro “Sonny’s brother” Chiba to a baffling Porsche Nazi gang. Over the top characters amuse for a moment, but the joke tends to get old. There’s no risk of boredom, but the bar set by the opening scenes in never reached. The theme song could’ve been featured more than twice, too, especially since the latter time is an instrumental version only.

The film’s finale attempts to combine the best of both worlds, with somewhat clumsy results. After first directing its protagonist to the Suzuki Circuit race track (once again filled with motor sports celebrities, such as former F1 driver Kazuyoshi Hoshino), the film soon opts for a side path, taking its fictional characters to mountain roads to battle for speed supremacy. The technical execution is solid enough, although unforgettable chase scenes are not to be found this film. In all honesty, director Yamaguchi’s somewhat fragmented action directing is better fit for furious karate movies than car chase films that would require a more gentle and fetish-like approach towards its shiny sports cars.

Finally, a fun little detail must be pointed out. While there may be good reasons for Circuit no ookami’s overflowing car promotion, Lotte’s chewing gum is more difficultly justified. Nokia, Apple, and other product placement loving companies of today pale in comparison to Lotte’s bold strategy of having the film’s heroes ride to the sunset with a piece of easily identifiable chewing gum in their mouth!

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