Yellow Fangs (1990) has long been a curiosity of mine. I'm not old enough nor did I live anywhere that would have given me access to knowing about Sonny Chiba when The Streetfighter first hit US grindhouse screens. So, when I first started learning about the man and his films, his sole directional outing, Yellow Fangs, was still a fresh wound on his career. The scant info I had was a brief mention in an interview that he put into and lost a lot of money on the film and it was a tough shoot marred by inhospitable weather and fx problems.
As the years went by I had some of those details fleshed out: that tough shoot took place in the Hokkaido mountains where cameras would freeze and the actors and crew were very uncomfortable, the fx problems were with the films bear suit, and apparently the financial hit Chiba took when the film bombed was so severe it nearly ruined him personally and professionally. That, of course, just made me want to see it more.
The film is supposedly "based on a true incident" that took place in 1915 Hokkaido. A bear, nicknamed "Red Spots," took to attacking specifically women, killing several from the modest villages that dot the area. The film centers on Eiji (Hiroyuki "Henry" Sanada- The Twilight Samurai, Ninja Wars, Roaring Fire) and Yuki, two young, would be lovers. Eiji is a member of the villages five man bear hunting team lead by cult vet Bunta Sugawara. After rejecting her arraigned servitude with a wealthy family, Yuki has just recently returned to town only to have her entire family killed by the bear. Yuki vows revenge but is shunned from the bear hunting team as their tradition states that women aren't allowed. While the team scours the countryside trying to track and kill the elusive creature, Yuki goes rouge, tracking the bear on her own, and this creates a further wedge between her and Eiji that makes bringing down the bear doubly important before it kills again.
Of course, when you go into a film knowing it was a personal project that hurt its creator, the first post film question you are going to ask yourself is, "Was it all worth it?" Well, I'd have to say, despite it being a fair film, the answer in Yellow Fangs case would be "No."
It is quite easy to see why this film was off the rails from the start. First, 80's and early 90's Japan was a time when video was killing the theatrical business and Yellow Fangs period set, drama-action hybrid certainly wasn't in vogue. Then consider those fx problems. The Japanese were certainly fine with fantasy stuff, but the kind of Rick Baker realism they need for the bear was not Japan's forte. Of course the final nail would be the location shooting in the mountains during inclement weather, a daunting area for an experienced film maker, much less a first-timer like Chiba. Despite his pedigree and experience in the business, the deck was heavily stacked agaisnt Sonny, so it is a miracle the film turns out as good as it is.
In terms of tone, Yellow Fangs takes a transparent, commercial appeal, wide breath. It's got a bit of man vs nature horror, some pat subplotting about cultural tradition bracing agaisnt modern industrialization and values, the romance angle for the teeny/female crowd, and, I swear to God, it's own kiddie pandering Lassielike hero in Yuki's canine companion Meru The Wonder Dog (I added the "Wonder Dog" bit, they might as well have). Motivations are explained simply and flashbacks bluntly reinforce the plotting. You really feel the behind the scenes, "we gotta' put some butts in the seats" mechanism working a little too obviously. You can hardly blame Chiba for doing so, after all, it was his bankroll that was at stake. Still, while I love some genre stew, I think the film would have been less lukewarm if he had just decided to pick an emphasis, go full tilt exploitative, light, or austere rather than try a bit of this one and that one.
There is a good balance of what works and doesn't work within the film. The cast is mostly great with Sanada as a charismatic standout. His female counterpart, Miki Muramatsu, on the other hand, is unconvincing in the two areas the script calls for her to play Yuki, as either jaw-clenched, delicate macho lady or over the top, crying jag wailing. The snowy sequences are solid and often breathtaking. Chiba shows himself to be a fairly capable helmer with some of his lagging points are most likely the product of being his first flick (for example, a, no doubt, Fukusaku inspired overuse of freeze frames). The action is pretty good but then we come to that damn bear problem. Unfortunately Chiba couldn't pull a Spielberg and find a way to shoot around his "Bruce," and one really does see the unsubtle seams. What could have been standout horror-action sequences glean towards the giggle worthy when you have a bear suit that looks like it was lined with Snuffleupagus fur rather than Kodiac.
The DVD: Cinema Epoch
Picture: The film is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen. The print is clean. Sore spots come in the location exteriors where the image is noticeably more grainy, soft, and washed out. Interior and set scenes fare much better, so one imagines there was some environmental effect going on and thus the discrepancy. Transfer has some slight, low level, background noise.
Sound: The DVD has one 2.0 Stereo, Japanese language track with optional English subtitles. Track is decent with the usual 80's era soundtrack flair heavy on synth, some pan pipes, sax, and slap bass. The subtitles unfortunately contain quite a few instances of spelling errors, like "son" instead of "soon."
Extras.: The extras are scant and basic. A Still Gallery, Trailer, and Liner notes by Popmatters and DVDTalk's Bill Gibron (represent).
Conclusion: The animal attack subgenre is a pretty shabby one. No one is likely to rank Yellow Fangs anywhere near Jaws but it is probably up there with numbers like Grizzly, Piranha, The Pack,, and Day of the Animals. The DVD presentation is elementary but it is nice enough just to have a b-flick long swept under the rug.