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THE WOLVES (1971)
Published by David Carter on 2009/5/6 (1631 reads)
Directed by Hideo Gosha
Review by David Carter
Released by AnimEigo
Running Time: 131 minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Color format: Color
Audio/Subtitles: 5.1 Dolby Digital Stereo Japanese/English Subtitles
Region Code: 1, NTSC
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
16:9 Enhanced: Yes
Special Features: Program Notes, Image Gallery, Interactive Map
Trailer Online: Yes
Short Version: Yakuza drama of revenge and regret.
THE WOLVES begins in the past, both in terms of the film’s chronology and historically. Within the context of the film it is a simpler time, as well. Two rival yakuza gangs control all aspects of life in a small province. The Enoki-ya and the Kan’non-gumi have an uneasy but civil alliance; disputes are handled through meetings rather than brawls. The construction of a new railroad is the subject of contention during the film’s opener – each gang wants to make sure that their interests are attended to since the construction runs through both of their territories. Things take a violent turn when the Enoki-ya learn that their rivals have dynamited one of their areas and the ensuing showdown leaves each side with deaths and incarcerated members.
The film proper begins several years later, after the ascent of Emperor Hirohito saw the early release of hundreds of prisoners. One of those pardoned was Seiji, a top man for Enoki-ya. The world Seiji returns to is vastly different than when he left it. His beloved boss has died to be replaced by a man he neither fully trusts nor respects. Seiji still clings to his oaths of loyalty but finds that they mean increasingly little; the yakuza have gone from a family to a profit-driven corporation. Lost as he is, he finds a renewed sense of purpose when encounters Tsutomo, a member of his gang that formerly had a romance with the now-deceased boss’ daughter, Miss Aya. Aya has now been engaged to the leader of the rival gang in a move that would unify the two factions and end their bitter rivalry. Once Seiji learns that the new boss of the gang is behind the situation and may be responsible for the death of the old boss, he sets a course to right the wrongs that have taken place in his absence.
THE WOLVES is a film about a rapidly changing time and the individuals who are lost or destroyed in its wake. The early parts of the film contain newsreel footage of the ascent of Hirohito and the literal beginning of the new era – the Showa period – is then played out dramatically through the lives of the characters. Seiji had been quick to risk his life for his gang in the previous era and finds that his life has no meaning in a culture where that is no longer necessary. In the new world of the yakuza, honor and revenge have little place. Tomi, Seiji’s counterpart in the other gang, resigns due to a feeling of uselessness; a swordsman and killer no longer has a defined role in the gang. Seiji, too, feels lost until he takes up a personal quest for revenge against the new boss; something that Tomi even assists him with, proving that their loyalty to the ideals of the yakuza are even greater than the loyalty to their individual faction.
Director Hideo Gosha packs in a lot of emotion and drama in many of the scenes, but, unfortunately, THE WOLVES moves at an almost glacial pace. Large sections of the film are taken up by Seiji staring listlessly off into the distance contemplating his place in the world but ultimately doing or saying very little about it. This keeps the audience’s involvement in the film to a minimum; the vast stretches of nothingness eliminate any momentum the film builds during the good scenes. Gosha occasionally does something interesting with these lulls – many of them feature the then-new trappings of Japan’s modernization such as railroads and power lines stretching out endless in the background of scenes – but most frequently they are beautiful but meaningless interludes.
AnimEigo is one of the best labels for Japanese cinema and no faults can be found on their release of THE WOLVES. As always, their extensive program notes are the highlight of the disc and sufficiently fill in any gaps in your knowledge of Japanese history that would be useful in understanding the film. For those who can stick with it, THE WOLVES’ story of a man without a purpose will be both poignant and moving at times. The over two-hour running time will be daunting for most viewers, however, as will be the slow pace. Fans of yakuza films or mafia films will find story to be one of the better in the genre and should seek it out for that reason.
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