I owe director Hideo Gosha an apology. For years I slagged off his film The Wolves (1971), regarding it as a low point in his career, a grim yakuza slog, tedious and boring and unworthy of his talents. I now realize I was wrong; I’d based my assessment on a shitty transfer and bad subtitles. Having recently obtained the superior AnimEigo version, I’ve rediscovered this amazing film, and to the late Gosha-san I offer a humble “gomen nasai.”
You’ve got to understand that back in the early 2000s when I was writing my first book, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves, TV technology wasn’t what it is today. Everybody didn’t have a big ol’ high-def, flat screen monitor for a TV. In fact, I was looking at a flat screen cathode ray job which was considered pretty cool back then (looks like shit now, of course). As it happens, that TV masked the flaws of the The Wolves disk I’d acquired, a cheap region-2 DVD from the UK which, looking at it now, was clearly burned from a video cassette (if you see the name Artsmagic anywhere on a DVD, stay away). “Murky” doesn’t begin to describe the look and, having now experienced the superior AnimEigo subtitles, I realize how bad the subs were as well. In short, I was sold a bill of goods and only now realize my mistake. I’m an idiot.
But the good news is that I got to rediscover something, always a redeeming experience. The Wolves is a slow burn, no doubt, but the cinematography, natural beauty of the location, excellent cast and sheer intensity of the drama make for an unforgettable and emotionally draining (in a good way) film experience. I won’t attempt a plot synopsis, as it’s all so very complicated. Suffice to say two yakuza organizations are at war, and there’s a lot of duplicity and treachery, and watch out for the two hit-ladies with knives in their parasols …
Tatsuya Nakadai is the anti-hero of the piece, his big, glassy eyeballs rolling around in anguish and disgust. Kunie Tanaka is great (as always) as the tortured yakuza soldier who’s been given a secret that eats him up inside. Isao Natsuyagi is the new boss of Nakadai’s gang, a questionable guy with a little pencil moustache. Kyoko Enami is the beautiful tattoo artist with secrets of her own. Real-life yakuza-turned-actor Noboru Ando is super cool as always. And of course The Inevitable Tetsuro Tamba is pulling all the strings. (This brief summary doesn’t begin to do justice to the film — you just gotta see it.)
The AnimEigo DVD, from 2008, is already out of print, so you’ll have to fork over to some third-party on Amazon or elsewhere. Poor AnimEigo; they’ve done such leal service to the samurai film cause, and now they’re struggling. I urge you to buy their stuff. Their Sleepy Eyes of Death boxes are awesome (featuring critical contributions from yours truly); Miyamoto Mushashi, Shinobi no Mono, even Tora-san. It’s all good. Get some!