Japan 1905, and during the morning in one of the remote villages around the mountains of Hokkaido a couple lie sleeping until the wife is awoken by the sound of their horse bolting in terror. She rouses her husband and they both leap to their feet, when suddenly they see the cause: a huge brown bear which breaks into their house and smashes the man's head open with one claw, then picks up and savages his wife, dragging her out to eat later. The news of this shakes the community, but there is hope that future attacks can be prevented when a team of bear hunters arrives and tells them they have been on the beast's trail for a while now. They mean to hunt it and kill it before it strikes again...
If Sonny Chiba looked back on his career, it's likely he would remember Yellow Fangs, or Rimeinzu: Utsukushiki yuusha-tachi as it was named in Japan, with a deep shudder. This was to be one of his proudest achievements, his directorial debut that would commemorate twenty years of the Japan Action Club, the cinematic stunt team responsible for so many of the nation's great action movies, yet somehow it all fell apart, and flopped so badly that Chiba was left with huge debts and the club was disbanded. What went wrong? It’s difficult to say, as it was by no means a bad film, so it was perhaps that there was no market in the nineteen-nineties for a historical adventure of this type that saw the heroes try to kill a wild animal.
The makers of The Ghost and the Darkness and The Edge would surely, ruefully agree with that, but it might simply have been that Chiba was nowhere to be seen in the movie, stuck behind the camera and allowing megastar (and his protégé) Hiroyuki Sanada to take the lead (and provide the music). He was a hugely successful performer, much-loved across Asia, so wouldn't he have been able to carry it to box office prosperity? Not only that, but Bunta Sugawara, another popular star of a different vintage, took the role of Sanada's mentor, though admittedly not in the type of part he was most recognisable for. The female lead, on the other hand, was Mika Muramatsu, and her promising career appeared to have been thwarted by her association with the killer bear flick.
There genuinely had been a killer bear in real life, which had been notorious as the most murderous animal of its kind ever at large in Japan, making this a fairly famous tale, though Chiba preferred to fictionalise it with a plot that just had too much on its plate: was it an adventure? A slice of history? A nature pic? A romance? Or the category it was forced into in an attempt to drum up interest, a horror movie? When it was unable to settle on one, it threw open its arms and collected them all, rendering what may have been possible to follow, but felt like a mess as it played out. Not helping was the villain of the piece, which was alternately played by a real bear (convincing) or a man in an animal suit (er, really not convincing), lending an unintended and unwanted element of camp to the proceedings.
If you could get over these issues, and they were by no means insurmountable, you would discover a fairly suspenseful and beautifully shot work that took full advantage of the snow-covered scenery for its cast to essay their heroism before. Muramatsu played a young woman who wants revenge on the bear for slaughtering her family, part of the lengthy flashback that took up the middle portion of the film, and she becomes the reluctant love interest for Sanada's rookie hunter since she is obsessed with the creature to the exclusion of all else. This meant a theme of feminism was introduced to the mix in what was already creaking under the weight, so it could have been just as well there were no martial arts in this Chiba movie, which was a complaint levelled at it from some quarters as a curious tribute to the team who he owed so much to. Kinji Fukasaku was on hand to give advice to his old pupil Chiba, but even that was not enough, which may have Yellow Fangs attracting seekers after cinematic disasters, but if they were expecting to laugh, there wasn't much humorous aside from the aforementioned bear suit and maybe Muramatsu's impromptu bikini for the grand finale. Overambition might have been its chief crime.