One of the greatest joys in my life is coming across almost ineffable wonder. I take pleasure in the good and the bad, sure, but there are wonders in this world. There is art that transcends our petty categories of “good” and “bad.” Things I find difficult or even impossible to evaluate because they fill me with awe. The merely competent rarely contains wonders because it often sensibly makes do with what it can accomplish with the resources it has. It lacks the ambition or fervor to try anyway. Most art that is widely considered bad contains one or maybe two such wonders. Then there is Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975). It is made of wonders.
Wolf Guy is a film adaptation of the two-volume manga, Wolf Guy: The Origin (1971), written by Hirai Kazumasa with art by Hisashi Sakaguchi. The manga is itself an outgrowth of Kazumasa’s 1969 short story, “Vice School.” Kazumasa really felt wolf guy and over the next three decades his short story expanded into young wolf guy and adult wolf guy stories, novellas, manga and two film adaptations, Toho’s Horror of the Wolf (1973) and Toei’s Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope. Wolf Guy: The Origin concerns an American-Japanese middle school student, Akami Inugami, who is a werewolf. Akami transforms into a very groovy werewolf who reminds me of Wendy Pini’s wolf-riding elves in his personal wolf style. (Elfquest’s Wolfriders didn’t mount up till 1978).
But rather than fun hijinx as Akami tries to hide his nature from the faculty and his fellow students, the manga is dark. There are stabbings and rape. I have both volumes, but I don’t read Japanese so I’m going with what I can glean from the volumes, Sakaguchi’s curly, twisty art and Patrick Macias’ introduction to Arrow Video’s blu-ray release of Wolf Guy. Incidentally, I highly recommend all the special features including interviews with Sonny Chiba, director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, producer Toru Yoshida as well as essays by Patrick Macias on “the resurrection of Wolf Guy” and Jasper Sharp on the context of Wolf Guy in film history. Sharp uses my favorite Japanese aesthetic term, ero guro nansensu–“erotic grotesque nonsense.”
In the film, our enraged lycanthrope, Akira Inugami, is played by Sonny Chiba. Inugami is the only survivor of a clan of werewolves who were massacred by their human neighbors. Now Inugami lives in Tokyo and his wardrobe and soundtrack are fully 1975. The film opens as a terrified man in an immaculate white suit and gloves stumbles into traffic, screaming, “The tiger is coming!” Inugami slaps the man trying to get him to calm down. But Inugami is much more compassionate than the street fighters Chiba often played, and slaps him almost delicately. The man continues to rave about the tiger and how “Miki has cursed us!” Surrounded by stopped cars in all four directions, the man flops from hood to hood before his back is slashed open by invisible claws. He turns and we see as his chest and throat are torn open. Inugami covers the dead man with his trench coat. As he looks into the neon lights of Tokyo, he sees a ghostly, panting tiger–but he’s the only one who sees it.
Inugami is questioned by the police, and it seems like he always is. As the detectives grow impatient with Inugami’s answers, they bark at him, “Wherever you go, there’s always an incident!” A werewolf just can’t get along in this human world. But Inugami’s in luck. He’s exonerated by the autopsy report. The blame is placed squarely on a demon.
The detectives argue briefly before releasing him. “It’s the only possibility. I can’t do anything about it,” the chief detective says.
“A human being wouldn’t be able to slash a body like that and not in such a short time, either.”
Yes, that’s the world we’re in. Is it noir? Is it horror? Is it martial arts? Is it science fiction? Is it a yakuza picture? A movie about a cat demon lady? It’s all of them. Inugami begins an investigation into this tiger and the stripper/singer Miki (Etsuko Nami), who has cursed these men. And I think it’s more of an enticement than a spoiler to say that he discovers so much including: amazing 1970s fashion; relentless funk and psychedelic guitar; blood like tomato sauce; a murder romper**; intriguing burlesque; labial butterfly club decorations; a distraction mouse; gangsters playing ring toss using a broken mannequin; threatening chanteusery; a grudge turned into a tiger; a band/ group of heavies called, The Mobs; government conspiracies; and a secret intelligence agency willing to weaponize the paranormal whatever the cost–including gross surgery represented with real surgical footage. There are so many wonders I cannot share them all.
In making Wolf Guy, director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, writer Fumio Konami and producer Toru Yoshida created a wonder, even if maybe they don’t feel like it now. And while there are so many things I could talk about with this movie, I am going to focus on one: Sonny Chiba never transforms. He becomes invulnerable on the full moon, to the point that he can break steel bars and suck his own organs back into his abdomen with a smile. But he never gets hairy. When I first saw the movie, this disappointed me. Because part of the draw for me was the idea of Sonny Chiba turning into a werewolf. I wanted to see his transformation. Seeing the film again, with time to ponder, I feel differently. It makes sense to me, not just in terms of the limitations of the resources given to the filmmakers and the time they had to research werewolf movies and European folklore, (i.e., none). It makes sense that Sonny Chiba’s werewolf form is Sonny Chiba. In fact, Sonny Chiba might be the ideal werewolf form.
Historically it’s not all that off. While the werewolf now is very much about the transformation, in the past the werewolf had mostly been recognizable as a killer and cannibal, often targeting children. So much so that when French missionaries encountered First Nations accounts of windigo, they understood the stories as about werewolves.*** During the period of the European werewolf trials, the accused didn’t always transform into a wolf. Some acted like wolves. Some just killed and ate people. And when given stories of how someone had transformed into a wolf by means of a salve, belt, robe or skin, there were judges and scholars who would dispute that the werewolf had in reality transformed. Instead, church officials argued that it was a matter of distorted perception–that the accused believed and perceived themselves as changing into a wolf and that any eyewitnesses’ senses had been deceived.
Wolf Guy is not alone in its cinematic presentation of a werewolf in human or mostly human form. A few recent movies present werewolves that way. In When Animals Dream (2014), Marie’s nails crack, she grows more body hair in awkward places and eventually her eyes change, but mostly her changes are internal. As her town’s doctor tells her, “You’ll also change emotionally and be short-tempered and aggressive.” Her mother, who goes full werewolf, never looks like Lon Chaney Jr. or Benicio Del Toro in their respective transformations. Ginger Snaps (2000) has a sliding scale from the vaguely lupine Ginger when she’s having fun to angry, monstrous wolf. As far as I remember Sybil Danning remains constantly Sybil Danning in Howling 2: Your Sister Is A Werewolf (1985).**** And in Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001), Béatrice Dalle’s Coré has all the signs of being a werewolf without the furry looks. Driven into a frenzy, Coré bites her lovers to death during sex.
Wolf Guy is much more peaceful than some of those werewolves. He doesn’t bite or eat human beings. Completely human JCIA Agent Katie (Kumi Taguchi) might lick his blood off his hand during sex, but he eats a steak at a fancy restaurant. In fact, he’s such a gentleman, I don’t remember ever seeing him without his pants on. In his most intimate moments he removes only his jacket, tie and shirt. He doesn’t kill in a ravening fury. He only kills to protect himself or others. As she died, his mother told a very young Akira that it was his responsibility to avenge the wolf tribe, but as an adult he walked away from that. The brutality is reversed. Inugami is a victim of human violence but remains compassionate towards humans, even protecting terrible people. He tries to help the man killed in front of him, the last member of The Mobs, and Miki, the woman who has been tormented into becoming demonic. He is loved by three of the five women in the film: Kate, Miki and, Taka (Yayoi Watanabe), a woman from his old village who loves the werewolves for their kindness. (One of the five women was his mother).*****
Even when he is driven too far, Akira’s instinct is to retreat from the world, to live peacefully by himself. His lycanthropic tragedy is not that he is cursed to kill, to reveal the beast controlled and restrained by civilization. Instead his curse is that humans perceive him as an animal to be used or destroyed. And in the civilized world, this human cruelty is inescapable.
If Yamaguchi had the resources, he might have made a werewolf movie that was more like a traditional Western werewolf movie, transformation and all. But I think Wolf Guy would be worse for it. As it is, Wolf Guy is a work of wonder.
*Horror of the Wolf was based on Kazumasa’s Wolfcrest novels, available in English from Kodansha.
**Inugami, as I note, is not murderous, but I really like the phrase, “murder romper” for his final outfit.
***No, you’ve read too much about werewolves!
****No, your sister is a werewolf!
***** Taka is also named after his mother. And then there’s a very awkward sex scene.
Wherever Carol Borden goes, there’s always an incident.