Saturday, January 21, 2023

Ôkami no monshô (1973)

... aka: 狼の紋章
... aka: Crest of the Wolf
... aka: Horror of the Wolf
... aka: Wolf Guy

Directed by:
Masashi Matsumoto

"Nowadays, it's better to have an iron body than a healthy mind."

Young Akira Inugami's peaceful life with his archaeologist parents at a remote cabin in Alaska is shattered when a helicopter senselessly swoops by and shoots both his mother and father dead. The young boy's anguished cries then fade into the sound of a wolf howling. He's then sent to live with his billionaire aunt, who owns a successful chain of Japanese restaurants in America, who then sends him to a private school in Tokyo. Despite living a life of privilege, the now-teenage, eternally brooding Akira (Tarô Shigaki) is having a hard time adjusting to life in the big city. Despite having some of the highest grades in his class, the school authorities are forced to send him to another "special" school for juvenile delinquents from well-off households due to the amount of violent altercations he's been involved in. However, none of that is his doing. He simply wants to be left alone to live a quiet loner's existence. It's other people who won't leave him alone.

The new school turns out to be a complete hellhole due to the lack of supervision. Students completely ignore or openly defy the comically incompetent staff, argue, fight, threaten people and even pull out knives on other students and face no discipline whatsoever. While I'm not sure how Japanese schools were run in the 1970s, I'm pretty sure things like expulsion existed back then, but the people who run this particular establishment seem to only care about getting tuition money from the rich parents. Due to his quiet, composed, stoic demeanor, Akira soon finds himself on the bad side of a ruthless teen gang who basically run the entire school. Their ringleader, Dô Haguro (Yûsaku Matsuda), is the son of a powerful yakuza boss (Kôji Kawamura) who also happens to responsible for Akira's parent's deaths.

Akira is subjected to all kinds of torment at his new school. He's punched. He's kicked. He's stabbed. He's beaten repeatedly and mercilessly with chains, bats and bamboo poles and even has "Dog" carved into back with a kitana by Haguro, but doesn't so much as lift a finger to fight back. There's so much constant abuse being dished out that they even have to montage much of it as the film would probably run 3 hours otherwise. When the gang aren't terrorizing him, they do things like slip on masks, beat and gang rape women in broad daylight around the city.

In a bit of plotting that's certainly questionable by today's standards, Akira's romantic interest ends up being his own teacher, Akiko Aoshika ("Masako Aki" / Yôko Ichiji), who becomes sexually infatuated with him. She even hunts him down to his apartment late at night to see if he needs any "help," though her motives are certainly of a less-than-teacherly nature and even Akira himself calls her out on it. However, he also has to fight his attraction toward her as she's a dead-ringer for his, uh, deceased mother. I'm not even going to go into the Freudian psychology of all that.

While walking home late one night, Akiko is attacked by some motorcyclists who drag her into an abandoned building, rip off her clothes off and attempt to rape her, but she's saved by what the press later call a "wild dog" attack. Investigative reporter Akira Jin (Toshio Kurosawa - EVIL OF DRACULA) has fur found at the crime scene analyzed only to discover it belongs to a wolf, not a dog... and wolves were driven extinct in Japan long ago. Well, that it until Akira arrived.

Despite the fact he's unfriendly, generally disinterested in human relationships and keeps to himself most of the time, Akira's distinct form of "quiet protest" in the face of violence has managed to influence many others at his school. Student activist Noriko (Michiko Honda) organizes protests demanding a change and that the adults actually do something about all of the brutality. It's at this point the film takes a sharp turn into social commentary territory. During one scene, the anti-violence student protesters are giving a demonstration at a baseball field when the gang show up and beat everyone with chains and bats while comical music plays.

On one hand this is clearly condemning the violence of the yakuza and on the other it's mocking the naivety of the peace-and-love hippie movement of the day. Akira himself could be seen as the human embodiment of why pacifism doesn't work as he sits back, takes one beating after another, refuses to get involved and lets evil flourish all around him despite having the tools to actually do something about it. That doesn't change until he's given a pep talk by another covert 'wolf' in the cast and Akiko is kidnapped, beaten, raped and held prisoner at the Haguro family compound.

I've seen many 1970s movies ridicule and / or satirize the whole hippie peace mindset (today's closest equivalent would probably be far left progressives) but I think it's important to illustrate the good intent behind that stance when one does so. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being anti-violence and anti-war. Unless you're some kind of demented sadist, you should be. Yet taking a completely pacifistic stance 100% of the time is not only unrealistic but also destructive in its own way as it requires either downplaying or turning a blind eye to various atrocities. You can say you're anti-violence and anti-war until you're blue in the face but ignoring countless people being victimized or slaughtered elsewhere in the world as you stand on your moral high ground digging in your heels about peace doesn't do anything to alleviate those problems either. Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world without sociopaths, criminals and corrupt world leaders, so sometimes violence is the only option we're left with. I think this movie does a fair job of finding this gray area.

Though some viewers may be disappointed at the lack of werewolf action (the creature is seen in just a handful of scenes) and it starts to drag and become a bit repetitive in the mid-section (how many times do we have to see Akira getting beaten up, anyway?), this does come through in several other ways. There's an intense, vicious and gory final confrontation filled with whipping, slashing, impalement, biting, shooting, throat-ripping and generous blood sprays all over the place, and the aforementioned unexpected subtext in the plot is certainly welcome. This is also extremely interesting from a visual standpoint and the direction is surprisingly surreal, experimental and artistic at times. That's enough to tip this over into solidly good territory despite its problems.

This Toho production was written by the director, Fumio Ishimori (Kamen Rider) and Jun Fukuda (SECRET OF THE TELEGIAN) and is an adaptation of Kazumasa Hirai's popular Urufu gai ("Wolf Guy") series, which began in 1970 as a two volume manga, spawned numerous later manga and then a long-running series of novels. The Toei Company release Wolf Guy (1975) starring Sonny Chiba is based on the same property, though it apparently adapts content from some of the spin-off books (detailing the Akira character in his adult years) while Horror of the Wolf specifically tackles the 1970 manga.

Though this has been issued on DVD, laserdisc (under the English title Wolf Guy) and VHS numerous times in Japan by Toho, there's never been an official release here in America. That said, a widescreen, English-subbed print is available and can easily be found to view or download for free many places, including Internet Archive. Judging by the lack of reviews and votes on most websites, this has clearly failed to generate much interest over the years despite being pretty good. Its sort-of companion film, 1975's Wolf Guy, has had it much better. It was given a high def restored Blu-ray release by Arrow Video in 2017. Why it and not this one? Well, it may have something to do with licensing or it may have something to do with Wolf Guy boasting the star power of Chiba while this has a cast that's going to be completely unknown to most Western audiences.

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