(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
If you were to only watch the beginning of Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope, you may assume it’s a misleading title. The film begins by introducing us to a headstrong reporter, Akira Inugami (played by a young Sonny Chiba, perhaps best known for his 1970s exploitation films such as Shogun’s Samurai and his revitalizing role as Hattori Hanzo in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films), who’s investigating a string of mysterious deaths occurring around Tokyo, tied together by the appearance of a metaphysical tiger and a tragic cabaret singer named Miki (Etsuko Nami). Although an early title card lets us know our time and placement within a lunar cycle – alluding to the classic tropes of werewolf films – there’s no creature-feature shapeshifting. The first twenty minutes are more akin to a yakuza crime procedural than a horror film.
If you only saw the back half of the second act, which involves a shady conspiracy to harness Miki’s telekinetic powers and turn her into a government assassin while Akira’s “wolf-blood” is extracted to create a race of artificial superhuman soldiers, you may think that Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope isn’t a yakuza mystery at all, but a psychedelic sci-fi film. And again, if this was the only section of the film you saw, your assumption wouldn’t be wrong.
If you were to only catch the ending of the film, which finds Akira leaving behind the seedy urban sprawl of Tokyo to venture to the countryside and return to his childhood village – where he bore witness to the slaughter of his lycanthrope family, becoming the last known survivor with “wolf-blood” – you may think the film is a twisted, psycho-sexual drama. In this section, Akira meets a young woman who shares the same name as his mother, Taka Inugami (played by Yayoi Watanabe), and engages in a bizarre, mommy-fetish relationship before facing off against government henchmen.
Inter-spliced throughout all these segments are fervent martial art sequences that epitomize 70s grindhouse cinema: shaky snap zooms, eccentric foley sounds, delirious choreography, and a funky-synth score. Whether he’s facing off against gangsters in the back of strip clubs or guards in clandestine laboratories, Sonny Chiba is firing at all cylinders as a werewolf-detective- journalist with a penchant for justice. If you were to only catch these frenetic scenes, Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope would seem like a kung-fu film.
But if you watch the film in its entirety, it’s clear that Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope defies categorization. It’s not that the film is confused; it simply doesn’t care to fit into a box. Throughout its brisk eighty-six minutes, it weaves in and out of elements of hardboiled thrillers, superhero flicks, espionage conspiracies, paranormal occultism, sleazy soft-core porn, and pulpy noir. It’s a chaotic piece of pop-art, filled with surreal lighting cues, vibrant dutch-angles, and bursts of ultra-violence and sexuality, bursting at the frames with a kind of kitschy, hyper-stylization usually reserved for comic books. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the source material for the film was based on a famous manga by Kazumasa Hirai (creator of 8 Man). The original manga, Wolf Guy, was published in two volumes in 1970, and later adapted into a live-action film, Horror Of The Wolf (Ōkami no Monshō) in 1973. Yamaguchi’s adaptation takes a variety of liberties from the manga, turning the cryptic folklore into a quirky explosion of exploitation, all the while keeping a straight face despite its bonkers plot and breakneck pace.
Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope captures the berserk energy of films coming out of Japan circa mid-seventies, cut from the same cinematic cloth as Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977) or Jun Fukuda’s Esupai (1974). They’re left-of-center works experimenting with genre; more concerned with pushing the envelope of how much sheer entertainment can be crammed into a film than delivering a linear narrative. They function as a cinematic buffet of sensational stylistic elements, caught suspended between aestheticism and story, unconcerned with where they have just jumped from or where they may land next. The reception to these films is usually mixed, and rightfully so: they’re objective oddballs in the cinematic zeitgeist. But in their reckless abandonment for tonal cohesion, they remain singular; their ambitious idiosyncrasies rarely duplicated.
Since its release in 1975, Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope has become one of the rarest and most sought-after films produced by Japan’s fabled Toei Studios. For decades, the film was rarely screened outside of Japan, causing cinephiles to travel far and wide to seek out what most refer to as the “funkadelic Dirty Harry.” While the film’s notoriety continues to supersede its availability, it has since been released on DVD/BluRay by Arrow, and is currently available for streaming on Kanopy. | e hehr