[24 January 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Quick - what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Sonny Chiba? Martial arts? Japanese bad-assness? The Street Fighter? A nominal name check in True Romance? An actual role in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill? Or maybe images of a feudal East come to mind, a territory on the verge of technological breakthroughs and industrial progress, and a small village terrorized by a thriving metal concern and a 900 lb killer bear? What, you say? The other ideas are definitely Chiba-like in perspective, but what does a period piece about a murderous animal and a group of mercenaries trying to destroy it have to do with the international superstar?
Actually, everything, since in 1990 Chiba directed his first (and to date only) film, Remains: Beautiful Heroes. Later retitled Yellow Fangs, the unusual effort became one of the most important movies in Chiba’s lengthy resume - for all the wrong reasons. After making more than 120 movies, the well known man of action decided to step behind the lens. A true labor of love, he hoped Remains would open up another avenue of expression for his mythic career. But it didn’t. As a result of the film’s failure, the legend had to sell almost all his assets, including his famed training school, the Japanese Action Club. Once you see the film, however, it’s easy to understand why fans failed to support Chiba’s idiosyncratic project
Instead of dealing with mobsters, street toughs, and the inevitable high flying fisticuffs that breaks out between them both, Chiba channeled the tale (based on an actual incident) of Red Spots, a massive bruin that terrorized a rural Hokkaido around the turn of the century. Concentrating its wrath on the local female population, the village hunters found their concerted efforts to trap it almost futile. Tossing in a love story between a young warrior and a girl out to avenge her parent’s death, Chiba’s choice flaunted convention.
The connection to the JAC was also obvious, right from the beginning. In fact, Yellow Fangs opens with a credit sequence recognition “in commemoration of the 20th anniversary” of the famed actor’s school. Many of the leads - Henry Sanada, Hiroyuki Nagato - were associated with or students of Chiba. Sadly, when the film eventually flopped at the box office, Chiba was forced to liquidate the club (he financed most of the movie himself) and head off to Hollywood to earn an easy (and much needed) paycheck. Today, he has even changed his professional name to “Rindō Wachinaga” to avoid further association with his action past.
It’s a shame that Yellow Fangs failed, for it truly shows what Chiba could do with a camera. It’s a movie that’s large in scope, but very human in its dramatics. While some might see the synopsis and think of an Asian exploitation effort ala William Girdler’s Jaws rip-off Grizzly (1976), this is a much more serious, much more somber experience. There are no major stunt sequences, no real reliance on fighting skills or kung fu styles to sell the story. Instead, we get a sly social commentary which pits the traditional ways of Ancient Japan vs. the encroaching threat of modern society (ie, a copper mining concern). There’s also an underhanded take on the paternalistic nature of the country both then and now.
Chiba takes a big cinematic risk right off the bat, offering up an initial bear attack that is quite gruesome, followed by the introduction of the hunters, and then an extended, almost hour long flashback. During this time, we learn of the longstanding relationship between friends Eiji and Yuki, the government’s desire to keep the locals in line, and the gender-based rift which causes all sides to clash. There is a lot of exposition here, as well as some of the most beautiful shots of the winter/spring Japanese countryside ever captured on film. Chiba may be a wonder with his actors, but his framing and composition are extraordinary.
There are several themes at work here - old world values up vs. the encroaching progress, the battle of the sexes between powerless women and their too controlling men, the violent need of nature to put man in its place, etc. All throughout the narrative, Chiba stops the adventure to give characters a chance to reflect. There is a lot of regret in this film - regret for relying on the hunters to stop the slaughter, regret from Eiji that he hasn’t made his feelings known to Yuki, regret from her regarding the fate of her family. But at its core, Yellow Fangs is really just a mystical monster movie, a film where evil is given a sinister spiritual façade, before turning into folklore.
Even with its strange combination of thrills and thought-provoking, Chiba illustrates his real feel for the art of cinema. He understands the subtleties of the medium, and uses his lens as both an insular and reflective device. When the bear attacks, he uses every trick in the book to hide the less than impressive “man in suit” effects. Elsewhere, he was not afraid to hold on close-ups, the actors allowed time to dig deep and deliver powerful, and quite personal, performances. There is an indebtedness to the Shaw Brothers, with many of the locations having a slick, soundstage quality, and by working with friends and well wishers, you can see the amount of drive and determination the cast and crew felt for this project. It’s as if they knew a lot of their idol’s reputation - professional and financial - was riding on it.
Perhaps that’s why, indirectly, Yellow Fangs feels so sad. You can sense a kind of finality in the project, a real indication that Chiba believed he was creating some manner of art with this elevated campfire tale. It’s no surprise then that, up until recently, the actor has stayed away from the director’s chair. But this past year, Chiba changes his mind. His latest creation is the upcoming drama Za Toichi, supposedly centering on illegal loans where 10% interest is charged ever ten days (the title is short for ‘tooka de ichiwari’). While still “in production”, it will be interesting to see what he brings to this far more modern tale. What’s clear from Yellow Fangs is that, when he wants to be, Sonny Chiba is a sensational filmmaker. Too bad it took 28 years to discover that fact.