Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 5)

September 19, 2014

Sonny Chiba Festival Day 5: June 22nd (Sunday)

Game of Chance (aka Samurai’s Lullaby) (Rokyoku komori-uta) (Ryuichi Takamori, 1966)

In the 1960s ninkyo yakuza films became Toei’s most successful genre. These old school yakuza films inspected the themes of honour, loyalty and brotherhood in a historical setting. The heroes in these films may have been yakuza, but they were honourable men who followed the codes of honour and never exploited the innocent. These movies would usually start with the hero arriving to a town where a good gang he belongs to is being pitched against a dishonourable gang that exploits the innocent. There would also be a seminal supporting character that the hero meets and becomes friends. We would later discover that that man is actually working for the enemy, but only because of some kind of blood relation or obligation that he cannot escape. The film’s climax would see the two men forces, and the supporting character redeeming himself with a heroic death.

There are a couple of different variations of this ninkyo formula, but the basics remain the same: honourable men put in difficult situations where obligations, personal feelings and the morals would conflict. The genre was a huge hit among the audiences and made actors like Ken Takakura and Koji Tsuruta the biggest stars of their time. It was therefore no surprise that Toei also had Sonny Chiba star in a couple of old school yakuza films, although he never became a star in the genre. Game of Chance is an interesting off-note ninkyo yakuza film in which Chiba stars as a swindler who has to escape with his 5 year son (Hiroyuki Sanada in his first role) after being caught cheating in a card game.

Game of Change is an odd film because it’s constructed very much like the typical Toei ninkyo film except that the protagonist commits some slightly dishonourable acts you wouldn’t usually see in the genre. In fact, the hero in Game of Chance is very much like the seminal supporting character in numerous other Toei ninkyo films. It’s also an unusual film because of its heavy dosing of family drama, which gives the typically very masculine genre a feminine spin. These elements make it an interesting movie, although it never really finds the perfect alignment nor perfects its art. Some of this may be actually because of the utterly mediocre director Ryuichi Takamori not knowing what he was doing. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining yakuza drama with only a few minor action scenes. It was followed by two sequels, both starring Chiba, and shot in colour, unlike the first film which is black and white.

Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (Wolfguy: Moero ôkami-otoko) (Kuzuhiko Yamaguchi, 1975)

This incredibly entertaining action film stars Sonny Chiba as a karate skilled crime reporter who also happens to be a werewolf. He keeps his true nature hidden from the mortal world and lives among normal people as one them. As the film opens, he begins investigating a series of ultra-brutal murders in which members of a rock band have been slaughtered by a woman with supernatural powers. Her skills are demonstrated in the opening scene, in which one of the rockers (Rikiya Yasuoka) bumps into Chiba’s car and pretty much explodes into pieces a moment later on a side alley.

Wolfguy just may be the most outrageous Sonny Chiba ever made! The film goes from psychedelic city noir to science fiction set in mysterious research labs, and eventually mythical action as Wolfguy returns to his birthplace in the mountains. It’s packed with unbelievable scenarios such as werewolf vs. werewolf karate fight, werewolf shooting people with machine gun and Chiba pulling off the prison bars with his bare hands. The film also features ultra-gory murders straight out of a splatter movie, super funky soundtrack, great action, frequent female nudity, and odd mother syndrome with Chiba rubbing his nose between pinky violence star Yayoi Watanabe’s breasts because she resembles him of his mother!

What is most surprising about Wolfguy is how it makes shockingly much sense structure-wise. Unlike many other Chiba films where the main difference between the beginning and ending was the number of opponents, Wolfguy really comes a long way storywise. It also manages to retain a sufficient level of continuity, despite being a combination of several ‘Adult Wolfguy’ graphic novels by Kazumasa Hirai. Hirai also published the similarly titled but more youthful ‘Wolfguy’ manga that Toho had already adapted into a film in 1973, but Toei wanted to fill their movie with non-stop sex and violence so they went for the adult version.

The film was expertly handled by director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (Sister Street Fighter, Karate Bearfighter). The shaky cam style that hurt some of his other movies is virtually absent here, resulting in several excellent action scenes that vary from martial arts to gunplay. There’s even a tank in one scene, though it never enters the frame! Overall Wolfguy is one of those rare cult movies that not only live up to their outrageous premise, but exceed it. The fact that there is no DVD or even video release anywhere in the world is a crime against humanity!

It says something about the film that I watched it three times during the same day. It was the first film I saw that day, followed by Game of Chance, after which I simply decided not to give away my seat. After the insanely enjoyable second viewing I initially left the theatre and headed for Laputa Asagaya for Co-ed Report: Yuko’s White Breasts (1971), but it turned out the screening was sold out and I couldn’t get a ticket. With nothing better to do I went back to Cinema Vera for one more go at Wolfguy, and I didn’t regret one bit!

Wolfguy was certainly a hit with the audience. In the last screening one poor Japanese fella became mentally insane! He sit quiet during the film, but as soon as the film ended he burst into uncontrollable laughter and couldn’t stop. He left the theatre laughing like a madman. His maniac laughter echoed in the theatre for several minutes, essentially turning the whole place into a madhouse. The film’s greatness must have been too much for him to handle.

This was the end of my second Tokyo stay, but I was only halfway through the festival. Stay tuned for more reviews!

One comment

  1. Wolfguy is my very favorite Chiba film! I cherish my DVD made from a showing of it uncut on a Japanese film channel. I wish any DVD/Blu releasing label would pick it up for distribution
    (like Arrow in the UK. for example). Thank you so much for this really cool write up Chiba deserves more attention and respect in the West.

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