... aka: ウルフガイ 燃えろ狼男
... aka: Enraged Werewolf
... aka: Wolf Guy
... aka: Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope
... aka: Wolf Guy: Burning Wolfman
Kazumasa Hirai's Urufu gai ("Wolf Guy") began as a two volume manga, first published in 1970 by Bunkasha Comics. From there, it became an even longer-running series of popular paperback novels. While the first few touched on the same territory as the manga, the rest were all-new stories. Despite sharing the same name, the Akira Inugami in the manga and Akira Inugami in the novels do not seem to be the same person. Making it all even more confusing, some of the novels were later turned into manga themselves. An adaptation of the 1970 manga (which dealt with the Akira character as a teenager) was made by director Masashi Matsumoto for Toho Studios in 1973, which is called either Crest of the Wolf or HORROR OF THE WOLF here in America. This pseudo companion film, made for rival Toei Company in 1975, is not based on the manga as is usually reported but instead snips bits and pieces from at least three different "adult wolf man" novels from the same author.
A frantic man runs down the middle of the highway screaming "Help me!" and makes mention of a curse, a tiger and a woman named "Miki." He then ducks into an alleyway where some kind of invisible force promptly turns him into a shredded, bloody mess. Observing all of this, Akira (Sonny Chiba) is taken to the police station for questioning. Apparently this isn't the first crime scene he's showed up at. He's been around during a number of other mysterious deaths. Thankfully the autopsy report comes back that the man was killed by a demon (!) so the cops are forced to let him go.
Akira, with assist from investigative reporter friend Arai (Harumi Sone), decides to look into matters. It turns out the murdered man was formerly part of a not-coincidentally-named rock band called The Mobs, and two of the other members have already been murdered in similar fashion. The only surviving member of the quartet is now Hiruma (Kinji Takinami); a pathetic, homeless drunk. In exchange for a drink, Hiruma reveals what happened to the woman whose name ("Miki Ogata") had been uttered by each victim prior to their deaths. The yakuza-affiliated rock band were ordered to gang rape Miki (Etsuko Nami), a night club singer. She caught syphilis from the encounter, started going crazy, became addicted to smack and then started popping up in various sleazy strip clubs around Tokyo.
As for who ordered the brutal assault, it traces right back to a sadistic gang led by Tsukada (Saburô Date), who use a casino to front for all kinds of criminal activities, and financed by wealthy music producer Keiichi Manabe (Hiroshi Nawa). The gang are also connected to a rising conservative politician by the name of Yoshiyuki Fukunaka (Hiroshi Kondô).
Back when she was still a promising young singer, Miki became romantically involved with Fukunaka's son, Junichi (Ryuji Hayami). Seeing how Miki was just an entertainer and Fukunaka was in the process of trying to hook his son up with the daughter of a wealthy mogul instead, he arranged for the gang to rape her and thus "spoil" her. The plan worked. Junichi dumped her and married the financier's daughter instead, leaving Miki alone (all of her supposed friends also abandoned her after the rape), depressed and suicidal.
Akira is haunted by black-and-white childhood flashbacks of his mother and the entire rest of his clan being massacred by armed men from a neighboring village. He's the last line of a species of wolf-people with special powers, including the ability to see spirits, superhuman strength, agility, healing powers and invincibility, granted on the fifteenth day of the lunar cycle during the full moon. Unlike in the source material, he does not have the ability to shapeshift into an actual monster or werewolf. He is merely human with special powers.
While Akira manages to neutralize the gang and gains the trust of Miki, another danger awaits them. A sinister top secret organization called J.C.I.A., who've been keeping tabs on them all this time, kidnap them and take them to their headquarters. While they're naturally very interested in utilizing Akira's special gifts, they're even more interested in Miki since it turns out she's able to channel her inner rage into an invisible tiger. Easily brainwashing her by using her trauma / trigger points against her, the organization put her to work assassinating their enemies, but Akira is a tougher nut to crack. Resistant to their demands and attempts at bribery, they make him undergo medical torture (depicted with spliced-in grainy footage from a real surgery) without anesthesia and then transfuse his wolf blood into another subject to create a second wolf-man. Afterward, they chain him to his bed with his innards just hanging out!
When the fifteenth day of the lunar cycle finally hits, Akira is finally able to regenerate (giving new meaning to the term "suck that gut in" in the process) and gain the strength and stealth to break chains, bend prison bars, eliminate guards, briefly battle the other wolf guy and then escape. He makes it to the site of his abandoned ancestral village, only to find the locals (descendants of those who had wiped out his people) hostile. They capture him and plot to turn him back over but he's rescued by a lovely young woman named Taka (Yayoi Watanabe). Taka's mother had been friendly with the Inugami people and Taka carries on in that friendly tradition by promptly stripping off in a cave and offering herself up to Akira. Noting that she's a dead ringer for his late mother, he indulges in a little comforting simulated breastfeeding (!) before the two run afoul of J.C.I.A. agent Taro (Kyôsuke Machida) and his men, who attempt to use Miki's powers against them.
Though entertaining throughout, this ends up registering as a minor disappointment by the end, even moreso because the first half is so surprisingly solid. It's well-photographed and acted, stylishly directed, dark and moody (with enough window blind lighting schemes to almost make it feel noirish), seedy, sleazy (there's plenty of blood, sex and T&A to satisfy exploitation fans) and takes itself entirely seriously. It also somehow manages to mostly dodge the "dated camp" label that gets automatically slapped on so many other films from this same era. And, yes, that's even taking into consideration the cheap superimposed tiger effect and funky music score.
Unfortunately, the film grows increasingly sloppier the longer it goes as too many plot shifts occur, too many story threads are left unattended to (the evil politician who sets the ball in motion in the first place is never even dealt with!) and too many underdeveloped characters are introduced. It's hard enough to try to adapt one novel into a film, let alone three or four in just 85 minutes! The aforementioned Horror of the Wolf actually works better as a cohesive whole than this one does but for some reason nobody's even watching that one, probably because it doesn't star Sonny Chiba.
Speaking of Chiba, he's actually pretty great here playing a tough yet likable and fairly well-defined character. Despite his fighting skills, special bloodline, supernatural powers and tough guy exterior, he doesn't play Akira as some one dimensional, strutting, testosterone-fueled macho action figure. Instead, we get a generally kind, thoughtful, empathetic and more soulful sort of protagonist who only resorts to violence when necessary and shows true compassion toward the other characters. Nami also deserves to be singled out for her excellent supporting performance as the tortured Miki.
Cast as seductive female operative Katie, half-American / half-Japanese actress Kumi Tagachi (born Constance Kumi Arnold in North Carolina) was able to parlay her appearance into a brief career as a sex film star that saw her headlining several Japanese Emmanuelle copycats, which were huge box office hits in Japan at the time, and even an unsanctioned remake of Deep Throat! The opening victim is played by Rikiya Yasuoka, who later turned up in the partially-filmed-in-Japan Toxic Avenger Part II (1989). Director Yamaguchi is best know for the popular Delinquent Girl Boss and Sister Street Fighter series' and also made A HAUNTED TURKISH BATHHOUSE (1975).
Mostly unseen by audiences outside of Asia until recently, this was finally given a 2 disc Blu-ray / DVD combo release from Arrow Video in 2017. It comes with interviews with the director, Chiba (who sadly passed away from complications from COVID-19 in 2021) and producer Tatsu Yoshida. The film has also recently been revived to play at genre film festivals, including Sitges in 2021.