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September 06, 2008

The Wolves

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Shussho Iwai
Hideo Gosha - 1971
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Like many American film scholars, my introduction to the yakuza genre was through Paul Schrader. This came in the form of his "Film Comment" article, two films shown at the Museum of Modern Art in early 1975, and of course, the film he co-wrote with his brother, The Yakuza. Currently, I am reading Chris D.'s Outlaw Masters of the Japanese Film. In terms of genre, Chris D. expands on the variations of the yakuza film, pointing out how different types of films were done by different studios, marked by historical periods and narrative concerns. While Chris D. does not discuss Hideo Gosha, he includes a filmography. Additionally this discussion of the different types of yakuza films helps explain why The Wolves does not resemble many of the other films I have seen.

The film takes place beginning in 1926. The new emperor has granted pardons to almost four hundred criminals including Iwahashi and Sasaki. Iwahashi has been incarcerated for the murder of the a rival gang's boss. Sworn as "brothers" while in prison, Iwahashi concedes leadership to Sasaki when his former group is merged with the rival group. The two yakuza gangs are in control of the building a railroad on behalf of a corrupt businessman. Iwahashi also is determined to discover who murdered his former boss. Complicating matters is that in feudal tradition, the late mobster's daughter is to marry Sasaki, the head of the rival gang, even though she was at one time promised to Iwahashi, and is in love with someone else.

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Unlike similar films, The Wolves is more methodically paced. One can describe the film as almost a meditation on what it means to be a yakuza. Iwahashi's prime motivation for not seeking revenge for the death of his boss is his concept of honor, loyalty to the code of being a yakuza. Tsutomo, the gangster in love with the dead mobster's daughter states that his code of honor is based on his being human. Sasaki, finally confronting Iwahashi, declares his goal to be an animal. The title is put into focus as the celebrated code of honor is set aside for self-gratification, the animal instinct replacing humanity.

What also makes The Wolves unusual are some of the visual choices made by Gosha. Often characters are partial obscured by by wooden slates or a glass window distorts their features. At one point, when Iwahashi and Sasaki have their final duel, they are seen in the background in silence, while the foreground is dominated by a musician playing a stringed instrument. There are also some unusual musical choices for what is essentially a period film, with the more traditional music electrified, as if redone by Duane Eddy. If surf style Japanese music wasn't enough, some of Masaru Sato's music is totally abstract percussion. Filmed in northern Japan, in a relatively isolated area by the sea also provides a contrast with the more traditionally urban based yakuza films.

In other ways, Gosha breaks from genre traditions. The women are as murderous, perhaps more so than the men, especially a pair of women who work as a team. In addition to the amped up violence, there is more sex and partial nudity. The effect is as if Gosha was personally attacking the traditions of Toho Comany's past, particularly the period films by Kurosawa. Tatsuya Nakadai mostly glowers through the two hours plus running time, at least until it's time for action. Not having seen any other films by Gosha, I can't say for sure if The Wolves is the best place to start. What I can say is that I am intrigued enough to see more by this lesser known filmmaker.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 6, 2008 12:38 AM


Gosha is one of the real greats of Japanese genre cinema and I really can't comprehend the reluctance of DVD publishers in the West to buy his films. If Kinji Fukasaku's films can find an audience, Gosha's should surely do the same.

He also made some very important chanbaras. I'd especially recommend "Goyokin" aka "Shogun's Gold" and "Tenchu" (if you can find the latter, that is).

Posted by: houseinrlyeh at September 7, 2008 10:23 AM

Greets! Really amazing. Big ups! Tnx! Saw!

Posted by: buzzman at October 29, 2008 07:28 PM