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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Yellow Fangs (1990) review


Hiroyuki Sanada (Eiji), Mika Muramatsu (Yuki), Bunta Sugawara (Kasuke), Isao Natsuyagi (YUki's father)

Directed by Sonny Chiba; Cinematography by Saburo Fujiwara; Musical Director: Hiroyuki Sanada; Planned & Supervised by Kinji Fukusaku

"It only eats women. So far it's killed twelve. It ate five of them."

A blood thirsty, rampaging bear tears its way through the snow covered villages of Hokkaido carrying away and feasting on the female population. A group of heroic bear hunters brave the elements in search of the ferocious "Red Spots", the name given to the killer bear by the terrorized villagers. A vengeful and determined young girl named Yuki disguises herself as a boy and pursues the enormous 10 foot Asiatic Black Bear for the death of her family. The young brave, Eiji, tries to stop her. Ultimately, the two become trapped within a hut, the flesh hungry creature trying to get inside at them.

The legendary Japanese screen icon, Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba, in his directorial debut, tackles this unusual dramatic suspense thriller. It's a difficult movie to classify. The closest approximation would be Christophe Gan's French genre hybrid, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2002). Chiba's movie tells the true story of a voracious killer bear that raided the villages of Hokkaido in December of 1915 butchering the inhabitants and consuming the female residents.

Since the 1960's, Sonny Chiba has starred in well over a hundred television programs and movies. Appearing in sci fi fare such as INVASION OF THE NEPTUNE MEN and the terrible TERROR BENEATH THE SEA (1966), Chiba would make a name for himself in action shows on the small screen and eventually, bloody and violent fight films on the big screen. Whether it was Yakuza dramas (BATTLES WITHOUT HONOR & HUMANITY: DEADLY FIGHT IN HIROSHIMA) Karate movies (THE STREET FIGHTER, KARATE BULLFIGHTER) or Samurai epics (SHOGUN'S SAMURAI), Chiba was everywhere. He formed his Japan Action Club in 1969 and used it to hone a team of actor stuntmen that would be featured in many of his productions.

Chiba was always a passionate man about his work and he displayed his adoration by pouring some 10 million of his own money into what was meant to be the 20th year commemoration of the JAC (Japan Action Club). The film featured a number of JAC alumni in front of, and behind the camera. What is most perplexing is that Chiba, himself, doesn't feature anywhere in the film, nor is this a typical film as to be expected from Sonny Chiba. There's no martial arts sequences of any kind and relatively little stunt work. The film relies instead on telling a story of revenge and occasional horror punctuated by a love story involving Sanada and newcomer, Muramatsu.

One of Chiba's mentors, Kinji Fukusaku, supervised the production and no doubt gave Chiba's maiden voyage in the directors chair some guidance. It's definitely a well mounted production and is handled with a lot of flair and enthusiasm by it's respected actor turned director. One of the most striking and noticeable aspects of the film is the sumptuous cinematography of Saburo Fujiwara. There are a number of visually striking shots of snow encroached mountains and valleys. If nothing else, a lot of scenes showcase some beautiful eye candy.

The script is a good one, too, and speaks quite a bit on the place of women in Japanese society. Women's suffrage didn't arrive till the 1920's and it was still a few years away, so it was interesting to see it beginning to blossom here. There is also a love story between Eiji and Yuki. Eiji is initially to marry the pretty Mitsu, a beautiful woman who prefers her place at home as opposed to the more adventurous Yuki. She is perfectly at ease getting dirty or hunting out in the forests for wild game. Preferring a strong woman, Eiji naturally has been in love with Yuki for a long time. The film is also told in a flashback scenario. After 21 minutes, the film goes back one year prior and doesn't return to the present till the last 30 minutes.

About the only real negative I can levy at the picture is the woefully unconvincing bear suit. Considering the strides in effects technology in Japanese movies since GODZILLA (1984) and continuing with the then awesome and ambitious work of Koichi Kawakita on GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989), it's a bit odd more care wasn't expended on that aspect of the production.

The suit on display is barely as good as the one seen in KARATE BEARFIGHTER (1976) and is in the same mold as the mutated bear suit creations in the American monster film, PROPHECY (1979). However, there are a few good shots utilizing the costume such as a scene wherein the rampaging beast crashes a festival killing a pretty woman who has just become a bride. The bear clutches her in its maw and out into the street amidst screaming townsfolk.

There is also some real bear footage as well as an uncomfortable, yet brief, scene wherein a bear fights with a dog. Apparently the bear doesn't kill the dog (although there is a cutaway after the bear takes it down), but it looks like it did hurt the animal. The violence is strong, but spread out over the course of the 108 minute running time. The opening of the film is rather gruesome and heavily pushes the horror angle. The 1976 William Girdler film, GRIZZLY was a hit in Japan, but I doubt its success had much to do with director Chiba taking on this picture. The only similarities are both revolve around a killer bear eating the cast members.

The final 12 minutes are very suspenseful and tactfully shot. In it, both Eiji and Yuki are attempting to lure the huge black bear to their location. Yuki decides to use her body as bait since the creature is attracted by the smell of a woman. She strips down to the bare essentials and it isn't long before the huge animal shows up and becomes a bit more than they bargained for. The film has an attention grabbing and bloody opening, a couple of stand out set pieces in the middle and a fairly exhilarating ending that will especially be appreciated by Kaiju Eiga fans.

Hiroyuki Sanada is a great lead as always and his screen time is split between his character and that of Yuki, the girl he eventually falls in love with. Sanada also handled the interesting and at times, exciting and somber musical score. There's no pop rock ballads that populated the action pictures of the earlier 80's, but there is one electric guitar orchestral piece that is heard near the end. Like seemingly everyone else, Sanada puts a lot of effort into his participation here. It's only more saddening that the production would nearly destroy its director, a man who had enjoyed the fruits of his labor up until the release of his directorial debut.

The film bombed terribly in Japan and considering Chiba put up most of the budget himself, he was hit the hardest. Sonny Chiba's losses were incredible to say the least. He lost his mansion, his restaurant chain, and nearly all his other assets. He was forced to sell his beloved Japan Action Club, the organization that was responsible for so many works of entertainment art. The very film that was a tribute to the institute accountable for Japan's genre of action spectacles was the very film that would cause its demise and dissolution.

It's curious why the film was received with such a lukewarm response from the Japanese audience. Possibly it was because the film lacked Chiba in a prominent role. Also, for a film built around the 20 year celebration of the premier action choreography/stuntman association in Japan, it was sorely lacking in the typical JAC action style.

At any rate, the film is, and will most likely continue to remain a curiosity footnote in the career of its distinguished actor turned director. Despite its strong points, I would only recommend this to those interested in all aspects of Sonny Chiba's career, or those wishing to see something completely different and those open to a Chiba film that doesn't star the man in some capacity.

This review is representative of the Cinema Epoch region 1 DVD. No English dub is provided, only English subtitles.

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