In my review of the fantastic Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji (http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2018/09/bloody-spear-at-mount-fuji/), released on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy back in 2018, I ended by hoping the label would delve deeper into its director Tomu Uchida’s filmography as I enjoyed the film so much but his work is woefully neglected in the West. Thankfully Arrow appear to have been listening, as they’re giving Uchida’s 1962 film, The Mad Fox (a.k.a Love, Thy Name Be Sorrow or Koiya koi nasuna koi), a Blu-ray release. Needless to say, I snapped up a chance to review it.
The Mad Fox was written by frequent Mizoguchi collaborator Yoshikata Yoda but takes its story from Japanese folk stories and an 18th-Century Bunraku (puppet theatre) play by Izumo Takeda. Set in the Heian era, it opens with a strange ‘white rainbow’ appearing over Kyoto. The Emperor Suzaku is worried it will cause unrest among the already troubled populace, so orders a famous astronomer, Yasunori (believed to be a real historical figure), to consult ‘The Golden Crow’, a scroll of secrets only he and his two disciples know how to translate.
Before the scroll’s advice is fully deciphered though, Yasunori is killed. Only his heir has access to the scroll, but he had not yet officially announced who that would be between his pupils, Yasuna (Hashizô Ôkawa) and Doman. The audience is shown that Yasunori was going to choose Yasuna, as Doman was too power-hungry, but this was only known to Yasuna and the master’s adopted daughter, Sakaki (Michiko Saga), who are deeply in love. We learn that Yasunori’s wife has been plotting with Doman, whom she’s having an affair with, and the two were behind her husband’s murder.
Just when a vote is due to take place to choose the master’s successor, the scroll is found to be missing. Yasunori’s wife frames Yasuna and Sakaki for the theft, hoping to get them arrested or killed, leaving her and Doman to control the family estate and abuse the power of being holders of the scroll.
However, when Sakaki dies after being tortured, Yasuna is driven mad with grief and anger, killing Yasunori’s wife and fleeing to who-knows-where with ‘The Golden Crow’ in his pocket.
Yasuna is later found by Sakaki’s family, out in the country. When he sets eyes on Kuzunoha, Sakaki’s identical twin sister (also played by Michiko Saga of course), he believes his love has survived or come back. Kuzunoha tries to explain that she’s not actually Sakaki, but Yasuna’s mind is still too fractured to let it sink in. She soon gives up trying to convince him and goes along with it, gradually falling for this kind and gentle man too.
However, one day Yasuna saves what he doesn’t realise is a white fox spirit from being killed by one of Doman’s men. The white fox’s family is forever grateful, so when Yasuna is beaten half to death by Doman’s men, they save him. Believing his life to still be in danger, the father of the white foxes orders his daughter Vixen (again played by Saga) to assume Kuzunoha/Sakaki’s form and take Yasuna into hiding, whilst he heals. Vixen falls in love with Yasuna though (he must be quite a lovable guy!) so keeps him hidden away with her for longer than required.
That’s quite a synopsis and yes, the story is quite complex (there’s even a long expository narration at the beginning I didn’t touch upon) but Yoda’s script and Uchida’s direction keep it from becoming a confusing mess. This is quite a feat, given how bizarre the events are that unfold during the course of the film. Much will have Western viewers utterly bemused, particularly once the fox spirits appear. However, those with a greater knowledge of Japanese culture will be less baffled.
As mentioned, the film is based on folk tales and a classic bunraku play, so Japanese viewers will be more attuned to the fantastical elements, but Uchida also adopts stylistic flourishes from Heian-era art, bunraku and kabuki in his film, to create something that straddles the boundaries of the forms of cinema and theatre. It’s incredibly striking, particularly in the second half, when naturalism goes largely out the window.
It’s even more surprising when you realise Uchida was 64 at the time and in the latter period of his long career, which largely consisted of films steeped in realism. Most directors of his age stuck to traditional filmmaking whilst youngsters such as Shôhei Imamura were paving new ways, but Uchida goes all out in The Mad Fox. Boldy coloured, clearly artificial sets, props and costumes are used, such as the traditional white masks for the foxes and a bizarre doll representing a baby. A revolving floor is used at one point too as well as clever use of collapsing sets and costumes to signify changes. A little animation even crops in at one point. For two fairly lengthy sections, we break into full-on kabuki mode too, with off-screen narration sung to the audience.
It’s quite a feast for the senses then. Although the first half is less stylistically bold, going for a more traditional jidaigeki approach, it’s still beautifully shot with meticulous compositions making great use of the wide frame. Effective use is made of screens for symbolism and visual depth too.
I found the final revelation in the film’s coda a little disappointing though, even if it made sense of some of the crazy things leading up to it. Thankfully, the climax before this is very effective, culminating in a touching, visually eloquent sequence that I shall not spoil here.
Overall, it’s a bold fusion of jidaigeki and kabuki fantasy that’s wonderfully unique and stylish. Its second half shift might not settle with everyone but I think it helped develop an already fine film into something truly special.
The Mad Fox is out now on Blu-Ray, released by Arrow Academy on 22nd June. The picture is a touch soft but otherwise gorgeous, with beautiful colours and no sign of damage.
There are a few special features included:
– Brand new restoration by Toei
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
– Original uncompressed mono Japanese audio
– Optional newly translated English subtitles
– Brand new audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, recorded exclusively for this release
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin
– FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Ronald Cavaye and Hayley Scanlon
Not a lot of supplemental material then, but Jasper Sharp’s commentary contains a huge amount of background information about much of the cast and crew as well as giving the context of Japanese cinema at the time. It’s a wonderful track but avoids discussing Uchida’s career in detail due to Sharp having covered it in-depth on his commentary for Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji. All the more reason for you to pick that disc up though, if you haven’t already.
I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to comment on that.
* Please note – the stills used in this review are not indicative of the picture quality of the Blu-ray