“The Wolves” (1971)
by A.J. Hakari
No subset of cinematic crime is as thematically bountiful as the organized variety. It’s about more than just a bunch of thugs getting together for some grand-scale larceny; deep-seated loyalties are on the line, a myriad of relationships that gets strained the moment someone gets an inkling that what they’ve come to know as a “family” might not be peaches and cream after all. Whether flicks about these subjects be centered around the Mafia or the Yakuza, casting the spotlight on a lone figure adrift in something bigger than they realize is oftentimes a go-to recipe for tragedy. 1971’s The Wolves is a card-carrying member of this no-nonsense club, focused unflinchingly on a gangster (in this case, a member of Japan’s underworld) coming to grips with realizing what a lie everything he’s stood for in life has been. Just as the great samurai films explored the conflict that arises when one tries abiding by a strict code of honor, so does director Hideo Gosha (Sword of the Beast) apply a similar philosophy to those engaged in more illicit pursuits. With its slow-burn pacing and catalogue of intertwining characters, The Wolves might put off some viewers on the outset, but it rewards the patient with a solemn story that packs a dramatic wallop.
As the 1920s neared their end, Japan ushered in its Showa era and, with it, the appointment of a new emperor. To mark the occasion, more than three-hundred prisoners were granted early releases, one of them being long-time Yakuza underling Iwahashi (Tatsuya Nakadai). Jailed for slaying a rival gang’s boss in a blood-soaked brawl, Iwahashi steps out of the clink and into a world he doesn’t quite recognize. He finds his old crew in the process of merging with their sworn enemies, under the guidance of an ambitious political leader (Tetsuro Tamba). Rattled by the changes, Iwahashi keeps silent regardless, determined to accept the switch and avoid jeopardizing his shot at a stable life. But the more Iwahashi tries to stick by the old Yakuza rules of honor, the more he sees that those who seized power in his absence have abandoned such pretensions, their insatiable greed driving them to commit the dirtiest of deeds in the name of obtaining more influence. The final straw is drawn when Aya (Komaki Kurihara), the daughter of Iwahashi’s old boss and lover of a friend/fellow gangster, is forced into an arranged marriage to further ally the two gangs, putting the pressure on our man to either continue refusing to make waves or acknowledge that the way things were done in the past is but a memory.
The Wolves can feel like a very harsh and hopeless film, yet it never allows itself to develop a wholly cynical attitude. It retains a certain sadness, a melancholy indicating that it’d sure like to hope for the best, even if doing so isn’t that viable of an option at the present. With its subtext about the march of progress and the gangs themselves disappearing into a conglomerate mass, the flick is as much about criminals being stripped of what moral guidance they thought they possessed as it is about the modernization of Japan itself, of a lust for power clouding men’s minds and overriding all previous concepts of brotherhood. This somber view is reflected perfectly in the way Gosha shoots the picture, with numerous shots of Nakadai’s Iwahashi wandering about beaches and graveyards by himself, searching for any sort of connection, however brief it may be. But lest you think of The Wolves as purely a pity party, bear in mind its violent side, which resonates with the bite that it does because of all the downtime surrounding its grisly outbursts. Iwahashi is a quiet dude, but when pushed far enough, he’s a force to be reckoned with, as we come to particularly witness in the final act. Gosha has you feeling every twist and plunge of every knife (complete with all the icky squelching sound effects your heart could desire), complementing the predatory nature of the characters; like the title says, the film is filled with opportunists and immoral types alike, biding their time and viciously pouncing when an opportunity is presented.
However, even with displays of bloodshed effectively capturing your attention, The Wolves moves at a deliberate enough speed and relays so much information that the prospect of keeping everything straight may prove daunting for some potential viewers. Considering all the Yakuza cinema I’ve schooled myself in over the years, I must admit that I had my share of difficulties, what with the movie going out of its way to introduce certain characters who don’t pop up again for a long time and who’s exactly being referred to when terms like “old boss” or “new boss” are dropped being pretty vague. As for the pacing, the slowness wasn’t that big of a bother, save for the climactic showdown, wherein Iwahashi goes after the villains behind a conspiracy revealed piecemeal throughout the story. This portion of the picture still carries its intended weight, but the sight of Iwahashi and the last bad guy standing circling each other for what seems like an eternity gets tiring in a hurry. That said, the plot’s suspense remains more palpable than not, with the performances keeping us invested whenever someone isn’t in the throes of a gruesome demise. Having proven himself one of Japan’s finest talents in such varied works as The Sword of Doom and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, Nakadai is the perfect choice for Iwahashi, his gaunt and haunted face providing ideal cover for the fires of injustice being stoked within.
The Wolves is more solemn and philosophically-minded than some might like their gangster tales to be, but I’m glad it turned out this way. Had it been filmed in a more bombastic style, with Iwahashi rampaging through thugs who’ve done him wrong, the picture would’ve been cheapened and made to look like a mindless revenge thriller trying to feign emotional deepness. I wouldn’t recommend it for first-timers to the complex world of Yakuza cinema, but once you get a few hard-boiled dramas under your belt, The Wolves is definitely one to hit up if you want to see the genre taken to a more profound level.