Sonny Chiba Festival Day 5: June 22nd (Sunday)
Game of Chance (aka Legendary Lullaby) (Rokyoku komori-uta) (Ryuichi Takamori, 1966)
Ninkyo yakuza films were probably Toei’s most important genre in the mid / late 60s. The chivalrous yakuza films pitched honourable outlaws who followed the codes of honour against corrupt gangs who exploited the innocent. The hugely popular genre made actors like Ken Takakura, Koji Tsuruta and Junko Fuji some of the biggest stars of their time. It was therefore no wonder that Toei also tested Sonny Chiba as a ninkyo hero. His run in the genre was brief but produced some interesting results.
Chiba as a single father and swindler who has to escape with his 6 year son (Hiroyuki Sanada in his first role) after being caught cheating in the gambling table. The father and son travel to Tokyo, where Chiba is hoping to leave the kid to his mother’s care, but things don’t go as planned and he ends up joining bad guy Toru Abe’s gang.
Game of Chance is quite an unusual film for it is clearly built on ninkyo film pillars, yet Chiba commits some dishonourable acts that a typical ninkyo hero would never do. However, many of the best ninkyo films contained a major supporting character who was an honourable man but would be working for the enemy because of a blood relation or some obligation. Chiba’s character in Game of Chance is, in fact, much like a typical ninkyo supporting character who has been made the main character.
The unusual approach makes Game of Chance an odd bird, and we could argue it’s not a pure ninkyo film to begin with, but it also adds to its interest. The things Chiba does in Game of Chance may be dishonourable, but they can also be defended to some extent, adding more shades of grey to the ninkyo formula.
Game of Chance also stands out for its heavy focus on feminine drama, which was unusual in the masculine genre. As the film proceeds, Chiba occasionally takes the back seat and makes way for Sanada and his mother candidates, including his biological mother and and a lovely young lady (Reiko Ohara) who becomes his foster mother. It all works surprisingly well, with good performances from everyone involved. It’s especially entertaining to see Chiba in a role that finds balance between his usual enthusiastic energy and quiet moments. The film doesn’t get back to violent action until the last 10 minutes.
Director Ryuichi Takamori does decent job helming the film, though he never approaches the greatness of true ninkyo classics (e.g. the Red Peony Gambler series, the Brutal Tales of Chivalry series). He was a mediocre director who rarely improved movies with his involvement, but a couple of times on his career he did decent job, and this was one of them.
The 5 year old Hiroyuki Sanada performs here under his real name, Hiroyuki Shimosawa. He appeared in a number of other yakuza films in the following years, such as New Abashiri Prison: Vagrant Comes to a Port Town (1969) and Brutal Tales of Chivalry: I Sincerely Want to Kill You (1970), before joining Chiba’s acting school Japan Action Club in 1973. In the late 70s and early 80s Chiba and Sanada would often play supporting roles in each others’ films, until in Adventurer Kamikaze (1982) the two finally starred in equal leading roles.
Game of Chance was followed by two sequels, both starring Chiba, and both shot in colour. These films remain the only time Chiba has played starring role in a ninkyo film, although he had appeared in supporting roles a few times earlier on his career (e.g. Gambler`s Love, 1964).
Taro Hitofushi performs the theme song, which served as inspiration for the film’s story.
Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (Wolfguy: Moero ôkami-otoko) (Kuzuhiko Yamaguchi, 1975)
This incredibly entertaining action film stars Sonny Chiba as a karate skilled crime reporter who also happens to be a werewolf. He keeps his true nature hidden from the mortal world and lives among normal people as one them. As the film opens, he begins investigating a series of ultra-brutal murders in which members of a rock band have been slaughtered by a woman with supernatural powers. Her skills are demonstrated in the opening scene, in which one of the rockers (Rikiya Yasuoka) bumps into Chiba’s car and pretty much explodes into pieces a moment later on a side alley.
Wolfguy just may be the most outrageous Sonny Chiba ever made! The film goes from psychedelic city noir to science fiction set in mysterious research labs, and eventually mythical action as Wolfguy returns to his birthplace in the mountains. It’s packed with unbelievable scenarios such as werewolf vs. werewolf karate fight, werewolf shooting people with machine gun and Chiba pulling off the prison bars with his bare hands. The film also features ultra-gory murders straight out of a splatter movie, super funky soundtrack, great action, frequent female nudity, and odd mother syndrome with Chiba rubbing his nose between pinky violence star Yayoi Watanabe’s breasts because she resembles him of his mother!
What is most surprising about Wolfguy is how it makes shockingly much sense structure-wise. Unlike many other Chiba films where the main difference between the beginning and ending was the number of opponents, Wolfguy really comes a long way storywise. It also manages to retain a sufficient level of continuity, despite being a combination of several ‘Adult Wolfguy’ graphic novels by Kazumasa Hirai. Hirai also published the similarly titled but more youthful ‘Wolfguy’ manga that Toho had already adapted into a film in 1973, but Toei wanted to fill their movie with non-stop sex and violence so they went for the adult version.
The film was expertly handled by director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (Sister Street Fighter, Karate Bearfighter). The shaky cam style that hurt some of his other movies is virtually absent here, resulting in several excellent action scenes that vary from martial arts to gunplay. There’s even a tank in one scene, though it never enters the frame! Overall Wolfguy is one of those rare cult movies that not only live up to their outrageous premise, but exceed it. The fact that there is no DVD or even video release anywhere in the world is a crime against humanity!
It says something about the film that I watched it three times during the same day. It was the first film I saw that day, followed by Game of Chance, after which I simply decided not to give away my seat. After the insanely enjoyable second viewing I initially left the theatre and headed for Laputa Asagaya for Co-ed Report: Yuko’s White Breasts (1971), but it turned out the screening was sold out and I couldn’t get a ticket. With nothing better to do I went back to Cinema Vera for one more go at Wolfguy, and I didn’t regret one bit!
Wolfguy was certainly a hit with the audience. In the last screening one poor Japanese fella became mentally insane! He sit quiet during the film, but as soon as the film ended he burst into uncontrollable laughter and couldn’t stop. He left the theatre laughing like a madman. His maniac laughter echoed in the theatre for several minutes, essentially turning the whole place into a madhouse. The film’s greatness must have been too much for him to handle.
This was the end of my second Tokyo stay, but I was only halfway through the festival. Stay tuned for more reviews!