Review: Wolf Guy (1975)

Some time in the last few years I got a lot less picky about what kind of films I would Wolf Guy Posterwatch. I think it happened when I started massively ramping up the number of films I watch in general. While I might sink tens of hours into a game and would want that time to be well spent, a film is usually over in a couple of hours, and if I didn’t like it, I’d probably be watching another film later that week – perhaps even later that day. And as I’ve written before, even if I walk away from a film disappointed, there’s probably still something that I can take from it. Wolf Guy (1975) is just such a film. I wanted something ‘special’ for the 100th film I was going to watch in 2018 and after spending some time trying to decide on an unseen classic or an old favourite, I decided I’d procrastinated enough on the decision and just grabbed the most bonkers-looking Arrow Video release off my shelf that I’d yet to watch.

Directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, sort of based on a popular-at-the-time ‘70s manga by Kazumasa Hirai, Wolf Guy is a legitimately terrible film. I’ve watched some fairly grim films for Kino 893 before; the low budget schlock of Evil Dead Trap, the dreary repetition of Lone Wolf and Cub, and the meandering, barely worth mentioning nature of some Nikkatsu Diamond Guys releases all springing to mind. Normally I might be a little more circumspect about how I describe a film, but my absolute favourite parts of Wolf Guy – even better than the incredibly ’70s soundtrack, which I would actually buy if someone released it – are the special features included in the Arrow release, where the director and producer talk at length about how they didn’t want to make the film and how little effort they put in.

Wolf Guy 3
Sonny Chiba as Akira Inugami, the titular Wolf Guy. Disappointingly, he never actually turns into a wolf – the closest we get to him even being a werewolf are supernatural powers that manifest during the full moon.

Wolf Guy is essentially a film in three parts. Adapted from a manga, I would be tempted to assume these were three arcs, with the resulting adaptation therefore feeling very serialised or episodic. However, those extra feature interviews make it clear this was not a high energy endeavour and that the manga author hated it, so I’m not sure how closely it hews to the original. The film follows Sonny Chiba as Akira Inugami, sole survivor of a clan of werewolves, now working as a private detective or something like that in ‘70s Tokyo. The first arc sees him get involved in the mysterious killings of the former band members of ‘The Mobs’ by a psychic tiger curse. The second arc finds him thrown into a bizarre prison by the ‘J-CIA’ – yes – and experimented on as a supernatural weapon. In the third and most rushed arc, he’s on the run in the foothills of Japan when he encounters the very rival village that exterminated his clan when he was just a baby, falls in love with one of them, and gets caught up in a showdown with that village and then the remnants of the J-CIA still pursuing him.

The first arc, featuring the psychic tiger killings, is probably – and I use this phrase hesitantly – the most compelling. It has a sort of supernatural Doberman Cop vibe – not just because it also stars Sonny Chiba – with Inugami being a kind of oddball investigator in a sleazy world of stripper bars and yakuza dens. The psychic tiger itself, the manifestation of a woman’s grudge, is depicted as a wavy filter over the camera and then a ghostly tiger superimposed over the image on screen. This tiger looks incredibly relaxed and non-threatening, though I honestly could not tell whether it was a bedraggled taxidermy or a sad example of the real thing, perhaps sedated and shot against a rudimentary green screen. I burst out laughing whenever it appeared throughout the film. Seeing it – and then seeing producer Toru Yoshida’s damning impression of it in his post-film interview – is worth the price of admission alone.

Wolf Guy 2
If you think this still image of a phantom tiger superimposed over Shinjuku is strange, try to imagine it in motion.

Once the J-CIA come into play – yes, I think that means the “Japan Central Intelligence Agency”, obviously riffing on the US CIA and the JSDF (Japan Self Defence Force) – things go downhill fast. This section of the film does produce a couple of actually great effects shots, the best being Inugami using his powers to heal some horrific surgical injuries, but it’s also the point at which the film loses all coherency and never really comes back. By the time he escapes and runs into the villagers that killed his family – dressed, it appears, in traditional Japanese hunting gear – I was convinced the film was going to abruptly end on a cliffhanger (knowing Wolf Guy never got a sequel) but it does actually manage cram in a conclusion of sorts.

I don’t normally like to write too much about the situation in which I watched a film unless it feels relevant – pointing out bad subtitles that sapped my enjoyment of a film, for example. In this case, though, the fact I watched Wolf Guy on an Arrow Video release feels extremely relevant. Firstly, it’s apparently the first time the film has been released outside of Japan, at least officially. Secondly, Arrow always include a few bonus features, either culled from earlier releases or shot specifically for their own. In the case of Wolf Guy, they produced two new interviews with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi and producer Toru Yoshida. I’ve never seen interviews like them.

Wolf Guy 1
Perhaps the most inexplicable part of the film is why women keep falling for Inugami, frequently laying down their lives only moments after they meet. Presumably, it’s so the film can contain plenty of nudity on top of the gratuitous violence.

Yamaguchi is the more subtle of the two, noting that he hadn’t read the manga before the film was made, but gradually expanding on the fact that he didn’t really want to do it, and that he was surprised someone wanted to release it overseas. It clearly wasn’t a film he remembered fondly. Perhaps the most telling moment from his interview was his admission that in order to do a werewolf film well it would require special effects, and special effects required a budget, and he simply didn’t have one. Of course, genre films have made do with limited budgets and heaps of creativity in the past – just look at what Sam Raimi achieves in Evil Dead. Yoshida on the other hand pulls no punches. In addition to slighting the film, he lays into Toei’s studio culture at the time, and even star Sonny Chiba. He has few words of praise for anyone other than his favourite writer, Konami, and director Kinji Fukasaku, who he seems to see as having gone on to bigger and better things and more or less transcending the studio.

Both interviews are astonishing, and in combination with the incoherent disaster that is Wolf Guy itself, almost make it worth watching as a holistic experience. It’s a shame that the film makes itself so hard to recommend. It leans too heavily on exploitation, with the sexual violence behind the grudge at the heart of the film dealt with too flippantly, unlike the Female Prisoner Scorpion series that leverages it into a cathartic role for Meiko Kaji. In Wolf Guy, without fail, every female character instantly falls in love with Chiba’s Inugami, strips naked, and dies – in more or less that order. I would never suggest that Arrow were wrong to finally bring Wolf Guy to an international audience, but their catalogue is so rich with genuinely interesting Japanese films that I would suggest almost any of them over this.

Wolf Guy / ウルフガイ

Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi

Japanese Release Date: 5th April 1975

Version Watched: 86 min (Arrow Video Blu-Ray)

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