One of the absolute pleasures of this glorious age of streaming media, collector’s edition blu-rays, and international distribution is that it has never been easier than ever to track down and watch films. Old and new, any genre, any country of origin: sooner or later most features are available one way or the other. For fans of Japanese cinema it has been an absolute godsend, with an eager market keen to pick up all manner of works – lovingly remastered and presented – that have never been freely available to English-speaking audiences before.
Take The Mad Fox (1962), a Japanese colour fantasy directed by Tomu Uchida. Long considered an obscurity outside its home country, a mid-2020 release by Arrow Video has at last given an opportunity to further discover this comparatively unknown director (his Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji was given a blu-ray release back in 2018). The films are completely different. While the earlier films is essentially a black and white Edo era road movie, The Mad Fox takes its inspiration from the theatrical arts of kabuki and bunraku – not just in terms of inspiration but strikingly in design and performance as well.
While several of the characters in the film are real-life historical figures, Uchida takes his inspiration from historical playscripts written for both the bunraku and kabuki theatre. Both are specifically Japanese art forms, with many stylistic similarities. Kabuki uses live actors, and bunraku puppets. While many Japanese films – particularly early ones – have adapted scripts and stories from both traditions, The Mad Fox takes a step further in translating the staging of traditional Japanese theatre to the film medium. Its entire third act – the story is split evenly into three parts – is presented as if staged with stylised performances, physical set changes, and an ongoing narration (a core feature of traditional Japanese theatre). In one remarkable moment, Uchida simulates a tracking camera not by using a typical track and dolly but by keeping the camera stationary and moving the entire set and actors around it. It creates an honestly unprecedented and wonderful effect.
The story, in summary: Mount Fuji erupts, covering the skies with an eerie red hue. Fearing an ill omen, the Emperor seeks advise from the astrologer Yasunori. Before Yasuhori can travel to Edo and give his forecast, he is brutally murdered – leaving behind an uncertain legacy. His two apprentices, Yasuna (Hashizo Okawa) and Doman (Shinji Amano), both make a claim to inherit his title; Doman betrays Yasuna, and murders his fiancee Sakaki (Michigo Saga). Driven mad by grief, Yasuna escapes into the wilderness. The continuing narrative goes on to involve Sakaki’s twin sister, Yasuna’s subsequent and mistaken belief that his fiancee has survived, and the interference in human affairs by a group of kitsune, shapeshifting fox spirits that are extremely popular within Japanese folklore.
For a viewer more familiar with English folklore than Japanese, the film plays out tremendously like Shakespeare: tragedy, comedy, mistaken identity, unlikely twins, mischevious spirits, and carefully drafted classical dialogue. This sense is enhanced by Uchida’s intentionally theatrical presentation, which blends semi-naturalistic sequences with stylised ones and changes scenes using in-camera trickery rather than traditional film edits. There are even select (albeit limited) moments of hand-drawn animation (the producing studio, Toei, had incorporated its own animation company since 1948). Uchida also presents his story using vivid colour: in the sets, the costumes, and the dreamlike fantasy sequences. It seems extremely likely his film was at least a partial inspiration for Masaki Kobayashi’s much more widely known folklore adaptation Kwaidan, produced two years later in 1964.
Far and away the highlight of The Mad Fox‘s talented cast is Michigo Saga as the ill-fated Sakaki, her sister Kazunoha, and an anonymous kitsune vixen impersonating the latter. Any of the three parts would be worthy of praise, but for an actor tasked with playing all three – each with their own subtlely different personalities and quirks – it is a truly superb achievement.
Phrases like ‘undiscovered gem’ feel as stereotypical and limited as ‘mini-masterpiece’, despite The Mad Fox easily qualifying for either. It is a superbly distinctive and original work. It is a superb addition to an international audience’s experience of post-war Japanese cinema. It is an inventive application of traditional theatre to motion pictures; in that sense recalling the kabuki-like elements of original Japanese silent cinema. Ultimately, however, is it simply a truly excellent film: beautifully performed, memorably designed, and utterly charming.