5.0 out of 5 stars Two houses
This is an intensely cool movie. A dark and brutal power struggle between two rival gangsters, this is no slick action fest but more of a Shakespearean slow decimation of power. It is, quite simply, one of the best yakuza flicks I have every seen.
Directed by Gosha Hideo (Sword of the Beast, Three Outlaw Samurai), the movie trudges through the underworld of Japan’s gangster society, the yakuza. Unlike many Japanese genre films, this one starts with a quick bang and then switches gears to a more personal battle. Filmed two years before the seminal yakuza epic Battles Without Honor & Humanity, you can see some of the groundwork being laid here for the film that would transform the genre forever. Although “The Wolves” is not nearly as groundbreaking as some that would follow it, it is genre done to absolute perfection.
“The Wolves” (“Shussho Iwai” or “Prison Release Celebration”) is set at the dawn of the Showa Era, when the new Emperor granted amnesty to over 400 prisoners in celebration of his ascension. One of these men is Iwahashi Seji, played by master actor Nakadai Tatsuya (Harakiri, Ran, Yojimbo). Iwahashi must deal with the fact that his former master is now dead, and the power structure has swung in balance to a rival ganglord. Moreover, Iwahashi’s best friend, Tsutomu, has disappeared following the pardon and Tsutomu’s girl Aya is about to marry the rival ganglord. All his time in prison has been for nothing, and now he must determine his course as one of absorption or revenge, of accepting things the new status quo or striking out like a wolf.
Much of the power of this film is visual. Gosha has taken some interesting risks, going away from the splashy and fantastic and into the gritty and realistic. A fight scene is not one man leaping and slashing with a blazing sword against countless foes, but two guys struggling desperately for one knife, rolling in the dirt and putting everything they have into it knowing only one will walk away. The colors are muted, and there is something about the entire film that seems like it has been soaked in mud. But in a good way.
The use of music is also outstanding. Decades before the release of Hero, we have two men battling in intense action with no sound other than the mournful twang of a shamisen. “The Wolves” features a powerful score, with contrast of “speed of music” and “speed of scene” being a prominent theme.
The Animeigo DVD release did a fantastic job restoring this beautiful and important film. The picture and sound are great, and the subtitled track is done in the unique Animeigo style, where cultural “footnotes” and projected as well, providing a basis for some aspects that may be confusing to Western viewers. I have seen this format before in Wakeful Nights, and it really adds to the enjoyment of the film as well as being a study guide to the Japanese language and culture.