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The Japanese horror thriller Yellow Fangs revisits the "animal revolt" subgenre of the 1970s. The enormous success of Steven Spielberg's Jaws spawned a variety of exploitation films featuring beasts as movie villains: bears, killer whales and even giant octopi. The movie is the directorial debut of Sonny Chiba, the star of countless action and martial arts films (Kill Bill: Vol. 1). Chiba produced the show with his own money and took a big financial hit when it didn't perform; it reportedly hasn't been seen much since its 1990 premiere.
Vengeful sharks and grudge-holding whales are obvious fantasies, but Yellow Fangs is based on an actual 1914 event in Northern Hokkaido, the Sankebetsu Incident. Over a period of a few weeks, an enormous Brown Bear terrorized two mountain villages. It was said to stand ten feet tall and weigh 900 pounds. The monster ripped into cabins and slaughtered people two and three at a time; trackers found only mutilated body parts. Professional hunters finally brought the animal down. The incident is comparable to the infamous panic over man-eating lions that gripped a South African railroad-building effort in 1898. It was later turned into the Michael Douglas / Val Kilmer movie The Ghost and the Darkness. In both cases, civilization extended itself into wilderness areas, upsetting the natural habitat of large carnivores.
Yellow Fangs' original title is Rimeinzu: Utsukushiki yuusha-tachi which translates roughly as Remains of Beautiful Heroes. The word "Remains" appears in English in the main title, and can be heard as a lyric line in a song played over the credits. Screenwriter Shigeto Sato elaborates on the historical facts, updating the story with a number of anachronistic themes. Tomboy Yuki (Mika Muramatsu) loses her entire family to the monster bear called "Red Spots", and becomes hysterical when told that tradition allows only men to go into the forest. This particular bear kills at random but has consistently chosen women to carry off and devour. Vowing vengeance, Yuki smears herself with bear grease to kill her odor and takes to the hills with her trusty hunting dog Meru.
The hunters searching for female victims find only torn clothing and shreds of flesh. One memorably grisly scene has young Yuki receiving a folded napkin containing all that's can be recovered of her mother -- a comb and a hank of hair.
Yuki's love interest is Eiji (Hiroyuki Sanada), one of four apprentices to the master bear hunter Kasuke (Bunta Sugawara). Kasuke would like Eiji to marry his daughter Mitsu, but understands when the boy favors the decidedly unusual Yuki. Unable to discourage Yuki from her illegal quest, the hunters marvel at her persistence. She remains in the hills for over a year, with a price on her head for poaching.
When the bear raids again Yuki and Eigi find themselves under siege in a ramshackle cabin. They're unable to get off a clear shot as the monstrous Red Spots tears its way through heavy wooden beams to reach them.
The bear has an exciting habit of attacking out of nowhere, in violent encounters aided by good angles and cutting. Early scenes with a real bear and flash cuts of slashing claws are quite frightening, but the final sequence too clearly reveals the beast as a man in a costume. Director Kinji Fukasaku is credited for "special directorial supervision" and may have been brought on to put more bite into the bear's onslaught.
But Yellow Fangs tends to be slow going between bear attacks due to a lack of conflict among the characters. Dialogue tends to be functional, with plenty of lip service honoring the dying breed of bear hunters. To represent the ugliness of modern ways, a disagreeable official in a western suit and bowler hat tells the hunters to put down their rifles and become copper miners. This pro-tradition theme "bears" little connection to the film's central monster threat.
The Yuki - Eiji romance is sincere but uneventful. To offer tempting bait for the finicky bear, Yuki strips down to an unlikely fur bikini adorned with a cartridge bandolier. As this is supposed to be 1914 the sudden interest in skin seems more than a little out of place. Not helping are the soundtrack's modern synthesizer mood pieces and guitar-driven rock cues. The film lacks a consistent tone, yet becomes very exciting whenever the monster bear is on the prowl.
The box office failure of Yellow Fangs forced Sonny Chiba to sell his interest in the Japan Action Club, a training and publicity unit he created for aspiring action stars. The club is given a special commemorative nod in the title sequence. Lead hero Hiroyuki Sanada (Ringu, The Last Samurai, Speed Racer) joined the JAC at the age of twelve. He became a firm disciple of Sonny Chiba and has also scored success as a stage actor, appearing with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The imposing actor Bunta Sugawara is best known for many samurai and Yakuza roles in the 1960s and 70s.
Cinema Epoch's DVD of Yellow Fangs is a good encoding of Sonny Chiba's bloody thriller. The transfer tends toward bluish tones but improves as it goes along; the beautiful winter exteriors look great and were clearly not easy to film. One scene set in foggy snowbound conditions is particularly impressive. The disc includes a lengthy trailer and an extensive still gallery. Critic Bill Gibron's text essay concentrates on Sonny Chiba's career.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Yellow Fangs rates:
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