The snow runs red in Yellow Fangs, and if that doesn’t make it a Christmas movie, it’s still the closest you’ll get to one here at 4DK. (Now eat your gruel!) In truth, the film is Sonny Chiba’s directing debut, one that he funded largely out of his own pocket -- a circumstance which, once the film failed to perform at the box office, lead to Chiba going into a bit of a financial sinkhole. That’s a shame not only because Sonny Chiba is awesome, but also because Yellow Fangs, despite some undeniable flaws, has a lot going for it.
The film is inspired by a series of savage bear attacks that afflicted a handful of settlements in Hokkaido over the course of a couple weeks in the winter of 1915. In the film, the culprit is a gargantuan brown bear by the name of “Red Spots”, who, while slaughtering settlers indiscriminately, maintains the finicky habit of only dining on their women folk (not, as far as I can tell, an actual historical detail). As opposed to his factual forebear (a pun which, admittedly, I could have avoided), his reign of terror lasts beyond a couple weeks and extends more into a period of years.
While the bear attacks provide Yellow Fangs with a series of reliably spaced action set pieces, the film overall seems to be more of a rumination on the men charged with stopping them. At a time when protecting the settlements from their wild surroundings was a full time job, these bear hunters -- lead here by the great Bunta Sugawara, of Battles without Honor and Humanity fame -- have emerged as their own sort of tribe-within-a-tribe, with their own unique sense of masculine calling and specific code of honor. At the same time, as we join the story, encroaching modernity has begun to herald these men’s obsolescence; the constant dynamiting of the surrounding hills by copper mining interests seem to be doing a good job of decimating the animal population on its own. And when officials from a nearby prefecture descend upon the village, one of their number calls the hunters “passé” and suggests that they’d be better off seeking work in the mines.
For this reason, Yellow Fangs seems a lot more like a late period Western than it does the Jaws inspired “animal attack” film it’s often characterized as. To drive that association home, Chiba gives us an unmistakable homage to Once Upon A Time in the West’s iconic crane shot when first introducing us to the village. This, in a further parallel to Leone’s film, is done from the perspective of the film’s female protagonist, whose prominent positioning forces a more engaged appraisal of the masculine archetypes whose actions to this point have seemed to be driving the story. This is Yuki (Mika Muramatsu), a sturdy and independent young girl who seeks to join the bear hunters after her whole family is massacred by Red Spots. The hunters refuse, citing their code’s prohibitions against women participating in the hunt, and Yuki is forced to strike out on her own, eventually becoming so obsessed with her pursuit of Red Spots that she ends up living a sort of feral existence in the woods.
Most of the above is relayed via flashback, and when we meet up with Yuki a year later, it is on the occasion of a chance encounter with Eiji, one of the young apprentice hunters who, back in happier times, had engaged with her in a nascent, flirtatious relationship. Eiji is played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who, along with other performers in the cast, is an alumnus of Chiba’s Japan Action Club, to which Yellow Fangs is dedicated in commemoration of that famed stunt group’s 20th anniversary. This framing of Yellow Fangs as a tribute to the JAC makes it tempting to see it as the impetus behind the aging Chiba’s elegiac treatment here of a particular dying breed of masculinity, but I won’t go there beyond that vague speculation. Sanada also contributes to Yellow Fangs an anachronistic, keyboard and saxophone heavy new age score that, in its favor, is not always obtrusive, but definitely misses the mark more than it hits it.
Sanada's score is definitely one of the film’s flaws, but before cataloging those, I’d like to first focus on some its virtues. For starters, Yellow Fangs is beautifully shot, making magnificent use of some breathtaking mountain locations in all their dramatically snow-swept glory. In addition to Chiba, credit for this must go to cinematographer Saburo Fujiwara -- as well as, I suspect, to a behind-the-scenes player who was perhaps Chiba’s secret weapon: director Kinji Fukasaku, who’s credited with planning and supervising the movie overall. The acting in the film is also strong across the board, especially in the case of the aforementioned Bunta Sugawara. Mika Muramatsu undermines her character’s steeliness a bit with a tendency to go on manipulative crying jags, but that could just as easily be the result of poor direction, and doesn’t prevent her from being on balance a powerful and sympathetic presence.
As for Yellow Fangs’ other major player -- namely, the bear -- he’s played by the combination of an actual bear and an actor in a bear costume that, sadly, no amount of quick cutting and visual obfuscation can disguise as being anything but shitty looking. Now, in the case of a more uniformly haphazard film, I would gleefully regard a shabby bear costume as the icing on the cake, but I get no such joy in this instance. Because, to be honest, Chiba does a really good job of anticipating those bear attack scenes, insuring that, even in the movie’s quietest moments, we’re haunted by a sense of impending sudden violence. And then when those attacks come, and we come face to face with that tattered rug of a costume, it’s as if all the air is suddenly let out of that threat, rendering all the previous work of tension building a wasted effort.
Of course, how much this particular aspect of Yellow Fangs ruins the film for you depends on what expectations you bring to it. I suspect that if I had expected the movie to be what I now, having seen it, consider it to actually be -- essentially a remake of Once Upon A Time in the West in which Henry Fonda is replaced by a bear -- I probably would have been fine. Because, let’s face it, that’s an amazing concept. On the other hand, “nature strikes back” movies featuring vengeful beasts are a dime a dozen, and really need that extra dose of verisimilitude to get the edge on the competition. I may be arguing against all good sense and sanity for people to give Yellow Fangs a chance. But as its reception seems to have discouraged Chiba, despite a worthy effort, from retaking the director’s seat for almost two decades, I think it’s perhaps worthy of a forgiving reappraisal.