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The Wolves

The Wolves
1971 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 131 min. / Street Date September 2, 2008 / 24.98
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Noboru Ando, Kyoko Enami, Hisashi Igawa, Komaki Kurihara, Toshio Kurosawa, Isao Natsuyagi, Kunie Tanaka, Tetsuro Tamba
Cinematography Kozo Okazaki
Art Direction Motoji Kojima
Original Music Masaru Sato
Written by Hideo Gosha, Kei Tasaka
Produced by Sanexumi Fujimoto, Masayuki Sato, Eiji Shiino
Directed by Hideo Gosha

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Japanese yakuza films, we're told, can be divided into two basic categories. Ninkyo eiga pictures are traditional stories in which the yakuza protagonist follows a chivalrous code. Loyalty to his gangster clan usually forces the hero to sacrifice his personal happiness. In the early 1970s the ninkyo form was subverted by the jitsuroku eiga films that purported to tell the true histories of the gangs. Instead of loyal comrades, the jitsuroka yakuza are cynical opportunists and thugs. The bosses of film series like Battles without Honor and Humanity preach loyalty while double-crossing their own men. The difference is that in the jitsuroku films, the hero no longer believes in the yakuza code.

Hideo Gosha's 1971 The Wolves is considered to be one of the very best ninkyo films. It stars Tatsuya Nakadai, an actor famed for many Akira Kurosawa films and honored with a New York retrospective in early 2008. Gosha made a number of taut, visually exciting samurai pictures, the best known of which is the exceptional Goyokin. He uses the same formal excellence and precise editing to show the hero of The Wolves caught between his honorable ideals and the treachery of clan politics.

The Wolves takes place in the late 1920s, when the new Emperor Hirohito has declared a general amnesty. Seji Iwahashi was in line to become a mob boss before he went to prison. His clan lost a major dispute, and Seji's former enemy is now his boss. Although his new comrades harbor resentments, Seji sincerely tries to follow the yakuza code of loyalty. He slowly learns that the new bosses murdered his old mentor and are running the mob under false pretenses. Naturally, the yakuza way demands retribution. These 1920's gangsters kill with knives, often holding their opponents tightly while slashing and gutting them.

That synopsis doesn't begin to describe the richness of The Wolves, a tale in which we often rely on identifying scars to tell the characters apart.. Gosha places the ritualized yakuza world in a visual scheme not that much different from Vincente Minnelli -- the visuals reflect emotions that the characters work so hard to suppress. On a gloomy Shimokita beach Seji meets the alcoholic widow of another yakuza soldier. Hopeful flashbacks and sentimental meetings take place before blazing red sunsets. Formal meetings and clan gatherings are interrupted by violence; a large part of the conclusion takes place during the carnival-like gaiety of a street festival. Seji's loyal friends are betrayed and hunted down among the dancers and parade floats, with an impact similar to the end of Minnelli's Some Came Running.

The key scene in The Wolves occurs when Seji realizes that his trust in the yakuza code has been misplaced, that he's the only one playing by the old rules. As in Hamlet, the new mob boss Genryu Asakura (Tetsuro Tamba of You Only Live Twice) is a complete usurper. Seji's response is laughter, directed at his own illusions. Seji is an "honorable loser" in the full Yakuza tradition.

The Wolves is distinguished by several interesting female characters, all warped by the Yakuza life. As a gesture to unite former rivals, a young girl is forced to become the bride of a mob boss. Her long-lost lover returns from exile just in time for the ending conflagration. Seji forms a sensual bond with the bitter yakuza widow, who appears to live as a vagrant in abandoned beach shacks. The film's most bizarre, formalistic touch are a pair of lady assassins who move like delicate Japanese dolls, until they strike with their knives.

AnimEigo's DVD of The Wolves is a handsome enhanced transfer with brilliant colors that flatter Hideo Gosha's startling visuals. Masaru Sato's impressive score plays well on the clean audio track. When these films were new American fans unaware of the larger yakuza context were at a big disadvantage; we used to enjoy the films' formal beauty without understanding the stories. AnimEigo's explanatory subtitles and text extras make the "world" of the yakuza much easier to comprehend. The extras even include an "interactive map" showing the rural locale of Seiji's mob, and the Manchurian railroad that the yakuza bosses want a piece of.

Research: Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film by Chris D. (Desjardins).

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Wolves rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Production notes, interactive map, Image and artwork gallery, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 20, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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