Wolf Guy. No, that is not a transliteration. The actual phonetic title of this film, and the manga it was derived from, is Wolf Guy. I admire the directness, the unpretentiousness of a title like Wolf Guy, as it tells you precisely what you're going to get: a story about a ... a wolf guy. Not a wolf man, a wolf guy. Especially when that guy is played by Japanese cinematic martial arts legend Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba, in one of the earlier examples on record of a live-action adaptation of a manga.

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© 1976 Toei Company, Ltd.
Akira Inugami's quest to uncover a "tiger curse" leads him into seamy corners.

Wolf among wolves

Even by the far-out standards of 1970s Japanese exploitation cinema, this is one weird movie. It starts as something like a Nikkatsu yakuzas-'n-karate-chops programmer (except it's by the somewhat more upscale Toei), mutates into a supernatural thriller, adds Nasty Government overtones a la Firestarter or The Fury, and ends with a grim out-in-the-sticks showdown that plays like one of those man-vs.-nature thrillers, except here "nature" is Chiba's character. Four movies for the price of one, and all in ninety minutes to boot.

Chiba plays Akira Inugami — the last name is a dead giveaway to any Japanese speaker — the last surviving member of a clan hunted to extermination because of their quasi-lycanthropic powers. Whenever the full moon arises, they become nigh-invulnerable, although they don't go the full-blown werewolf route and actually turn into beasts. These days, he pounds pavement in the big city, working as an investigator but keeping the full extent of his power on the down low. One night a nattily-dressed Man About Town type gets torn to shreds in front of him by some kind of invisible, clawed monster, and he's off and running to find out about this murderous "Curse of the Tiger".

He finds a lot. Turns out the dead guy, and several others murdered the same way, were part of a musical group who took advantage of their female lead singer, Miki, and left her with a case of syphilis. Miki's rage against those who have wronged her manifests as the ability to telepathically maul her enemies. Akira senses in her something like a kindred spirit, perhaps someone he can ally with to stop those exploiting her, but she's not having any of it — and soon Akira himself is seized upon by the same malevolent authorities that are exploiting Miki's power and subjected to horrific experiments. Then the full moon comes up, and a newly-empowered Akira turns the tables on his tormentors.

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© 1976 Toei Company, Ltd.
The wielder of the curse has her powered weaponized by dark forces. Akira is next.

Being adaptable

It's easy to assume that because the whole thing is adapted from a manga — one created by Kazumasa Hirai, who gave us the seminal cyborg superhero story 8-Man and the acid-trip cosmic epic Genma Taisen a/k/a Harmagedon — that that's where the vast majority of the weirdness and luridness of the story comes from. I'm not so sure. I chalk a fair amount of that up to the director, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, who throughout the 1970s produced a slew of equally outlandish and gleefully stylized action/martial-arts/crime pictures. Chiba figured into them regularly, along with his fellow "Japan Action Club" member Etsuko "Sue" Shiomi (Sister Street Fighter), and Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood, another relatively early manga-to-live-action adaptation). All of them featured wild, headlong storytelling, raunchy sexuality, and lurid underworld atmospheres.

All that stuff is here, too. For sex, we have not just Miki, but two other women who literally throw themselves at Akira — a mysterious motorcycle-riding, leather-clad beauty who turns out to be bad news for both Akira and Miki; and a woman whose sole function is to show up at the end, provide Akira with some aid, disrobe, and be fondled. Arguments can be made that Yamaguchi's Meiko Kaji and Etsuko Shiomi movies had feminist under- and over-tones, but nobody's going to be making that argument about Wolf Guy. For violence, we have Chiba's karate moves, plus some gloriously absurd, only-in-a-movie-from-a-manga moments — e.g., flinging coins into his enemy's eyes, or tumbling head-first down a hillside to snatch a machine gun away from someone and blow away dozens of other armed assailants. And so on.

Was the original manga in this vein as well? Hard to tell without reading it — it's never been published in English — but Patrick Macias's liner notes for the Arrow Films home video release of Wolf Guy noted there were two distinct strains of the story, a "shōnen" take on the character as a teenager (also adapted into a film and later an anime series), and a later-in-life "adult" take. I've seen Yamaguchi's other movies, so I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that much of the flavor of this incarnation of Wolf Guy is his, rather than Hirai's. I suspect Yamaguchi was using novel ingredients from Hirai's manga to enrich something that would otherwise have been in the same vein as his previous productions — to imbue some novel twists into what would otherwise have been another Chiba-vs.-the-baddies outing.

It strikes me how today we have entirely different attitudes towards adaptations, especially from material like comics or manga. There's far more of an attitude that you can't just raid the original for ideas; you need to have some measure of reverence, whether or not that reverence is deserved or not. Fandom has a lot to do with it; there wasn't nearly the same self-identifying culture of fandom in the 1970s as there is now. Not nearly as vocal and centralized a one, to be sure. Where such fandom existed at the time Wolf Guy came out, I'd bet was far more likely to be a fandom around Sonny Chiba's work than Kazumasa Hirai's. Fidelity to the original story, or making the fans of the original story happy, mattered a lot less than appealing to the folks who would turn out to watch a star they knew and loved do this thing.

Today, there's far more scrutiny about the tone, the people involved, and so on, largely because a) fans assert themselves a good deal more vocally now and b) more of the people making these kinds of movies are themselves self-identifying fans of the material. Not that either of those things guarantee a good or even faithful production, only that they shape the feedback loop through which such things are created. Today, it's all but impossible to adapt anything, even something with a relatively tiny audience, without its fanbase weighing in. Wolf Guy is the product of — and a delirious artifact of — a more innocent age in more ways than one.

Note: The products mentioned here were purchased by the reviewer with personal funds, or watched using the reviewer's personal streaming account. No compensation was provided by the creators or publishers for the sake of this review.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.