Yellow Fangs Review
It’s ironic that the very film which commemorated the 20th anniversary of Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba’s JAC (Japan Action Club) stunt team was the same one that financially ruined the man and forced him to sell up. Chiba’s directorial debut, Rimeinzu: Utsukushiki Yusha- tach [Remains: The Beautiful Ones], hit Japanese theatres in 1990, failing miserably, despite having a well respected man behind the lens, a solid cast and some remarkably high production values. Chiba’s self-funded project, in which he collaborated with Kinji Fukasaku, was based upon a real-life event which took place in 1915 Hokkaido, which became known as the ‘Tomamae Incident’. Reportedly, a bear weighing in at almost 750 lbs, took to exclusively mauling women and children over the course of two nights, before it was eventually subdued and slaughtered by local villagers.
That’s about as far as Chiba goes for historical accuracy, taking great dramatic licence to flesh out the remainder of the narrative with reflective musings and token melodrama. Yellow Fangs, as it’s known in the west, follows five hunters: highly skilled in bear-culling, who set out to kill the fabled beast whom they’ve come to nickname ‘Red Spots’. When they think they’ve found the elusive Mr. Spots high up on a mountain trail, a rival hunter interrupts and kills it without hesitation, not realising that they got the wrong bear. Before the mystery person has a chance to run off he’s spotted by one of the hunters, Eiji (Hiroyuki Sanada), who realises that it isn’t a man after all, but in fact a young woman from his past named Yuki (Mika Muramatsu). As she scarpers, Eiji stops and recollects the first moment he ever laid eyes on her, while the reason for her new guise becomes all-too-apparent over time.
It’s a shame that Yellow Fangs became known more for cursing ol’ Sonny with bad luck rather than being the respectable film it is. The most immediately grabbing thing is of course the beautiful, snowy landscape of rural Hokkaido, which equally looks as unwelcoming as the reportedly difficult and expensive shoot attests to. The search for the bear is trepid in itself, with constant elemental threats all around. Chiba does a wonderful job of generating a steady amount of tension, thanks to some skilled framing devices, by utilising first-person perspectives to heighten panic, whether it be from the rampaging bear itself or the scared townsfolk scrambling to safety; quite impressive given the natural constraints of not being able to capture the required footage quite so authentically. Lead actor Hiroyuki Sanada also shows his combined talent for music, chiming in with a suitable score; though at times the impromptu guitar-synth cues feels as if they belong in a Rocky montage, Sanada throws in some haunting pipes and percussion to underpin emotions and help maintain a certain amount of uncertainty throughout. Such understanding of visual and audio aids do wonders for what otherwise remains a story of sparse dialogue, particularly during its first act.
It’s after this that the initial excitement of the picture wears off, as the mid-way point presents its share of pacing issues; flitting back and forth from flashbacks to present day for the best part of an hour, it tries its best in paving the way for an onslaught of sentimentality and few decent chase sequences. Central to all of this is of course the relationship shared between Eiji and the aptly named Yuki. Chiba gives us two sympathetic figures but it’s all played out fairly routinely, with the predictable nature of the pairing - and some hopeless wailing on Mika Muramatsu’s part - slowing down proceedings. In-between several semi-romantic bouts we’re also treated to popular spiritual beliefs and male posturing. Our bear-culling heroes come equipped with not just spears and rifles, but well chosen words as they lament the foreseeable end of days by stressing how their selfless acts of heroism lead to one becoming a true man. Such philosophies are rife throughout various cultures, yet despite the very real nature of how bear hunters seem to look at the world around them, you can’t help but think just how utterly ridiculous it is to brave walking up to a bear and trying to stare it down (apparently just killing it from far away won’t do). During these lengthy rounds of exposition, before the film “re-encounters” for the final stretch, the director also finds time to tap into social fears. Not only is the bear itself a symbol of terror - and a god-like beast we later learn - but so too is humankind under the inevitable threat of change. Chiba does well to work in his eco-commentary, which warns of man destroying nature through his own greed via a subplot involving mining, just as he does in touching upon the inequalities of men and women in the work force, but frankly it’s nothing that hasn’t been spoken of before, better or otherwise, despite how admirably his cast take to the serious challenge.
All interest in the film returns once it gets back down to serious business, and by that I mean bear fighting! The final fifteen minutes is terrifically staged, as Eiji and Yuki are pitted against their grizzly foe in a small, abandoned house. Chiba and cinematographer Saburo Fujiwara’s camerawork is astonishingly good in lending an epic feel to such an intimate setting. The pacing is fierce as the tension ratchets, seeing the beast attack from all angles as the walls collapse around our protagonists. It’s pure survival horror by this point, and coupled with Muramatsu’s half-nakedness (though momentarily amusing choreography) and Koichi Sonoi’s remarkable editing - which does its best to hide the fact that the bear is in fact a man in a suit - it makes for a truly memorable piece of cinema. A great shame indeed that a man of Chiba’s talent wasn’t afforded many more chances to show just how capable he is in the hot seat.
Cinema Epoch’s R0 anamorphic 1.85:1 presentation, which has been “transferred from the original 35mm elements” is good for the most part. It only really lets itself down on account of some poor authoring which could have been avoided. There’s very little in the way of digital noise, but where it falters is at the 54:34 - 55:13 mark. Not only is there a 1 second audio drop out at the beginning of stated time, the image also breaks up around the end mark.
Otherwise it really does look very nice. Contrast initially appears a tad off, but it appears to be a result of the shooting conditions, with outdoor scenes coming across a little hazier, while interiors retain a strong colour balance and solid black levels. There’s a slight softness throughout, which isn’t unusual and a spot of aliasing to boot.
The Japanese DD 2.0 track, despite the one misgiving, is also very good. The rear channels on my set up were outputting some minor ambient effects, but mainly hiss, so I’m not entirely sure what’s going on there. The central channels however are very strong. Dialogue is fine and ambient effects come across exceptionally well, with some decent snowy winds, while Sanada’s score sounds nice and bass-y.
The subtitles on the other hand are questionable. They’re perfectly understandable and there are no bad timing issues, but there are several ropey spelling errors such as “And girls don’t shot guns”, “He had to quite bear hunting” and “Who own it now?” A few sentences are oddly translated as well, with some westernised connotations.
Bonus material is slim, which is a shame because by the sound of it the production was far more intriguing than the film itself. All we have is an essay by Bill Gibron, which to be fair is very good in pointing out production troubles along with the more evident social concerns. There’s also a theatrical trailer and a stills gallery.
Yellow Fangs may have put Shinichi Chiba out of pocket and left him somewhat bitter I imagine, but it’s a film worth being proud of. While it does stumble here and there during an odd middle act there’s no doubting how stunning it all looks, nor how passionately the director approaches his material. A very respectable action drama from one of Japan’s most beloved screen veterans.