The films of Tomu Uchida are not likely at the top of mind for western audiences in the same ways that Japanese directors such as Akira Kurosawa or Yasujirō Ozu are, but his contributions to the art form are no less noteworthy. Uchida may be best known to cinephiles for his varied, uncategorizable styles that he brought to his over forty year career. From the naturalistic beauty of 1955’s Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji to one of his last films, the vibrant and stylistically theatrical The Mad Fox from 1962, the gentleman pushed his own boundaries, and that of the medium, whenever he had the chance. In the latter film, Uchida employs many techniques that you can feel served as inspiration for generations of filmmakers afterwards. In this film, the auteur takes ancient Japanese folklore and uses it to craft a story of sorrowful love and palace intrigue. Arrow Academy has once again realized the significance of Uchida to the artform, and they have given The Mad Fox a proper release on home entertainment.
The film begins with a lengthy panning shot across a scroll that helps acclimate the audience to the story and characters at hand. During this period of time, there are strange things happening in Japan which put everyone on edge. A painted image of an erupting Mount Fuji gives way to crimson light across the faces of our character. Uchida is employing some visually arresting theatrical techniques to get his intentions across. Not only is the earth bubbling up, but there has been a strange “white rainbow” spotted in the sky that provokes paranoia throughout the land. These are believed to be some bad omens, and the only person trusted by the emperor to investigate what is happening is famed astrologer Yasunori (Junya Usami), who consults an ancient text known as the Golden Crow. The news is not good, and tragedy befalls Yasunori which leads to a series of dramatic turns wherein his two followers, the virtuous Yasuna (Hashizô Ôkawa) and devious Doman (Shinji Amano), vie to take up his mantle.
Without giving away all the twists and turns, there are betrayals and ruthless killings from newfound alliances that lead to a more dreamy second half of the movie. The director takes Yasuna down an ill-fated path to reconnect with his love, Sakaki (Michiko Saga), Yasunori’s adopted daughter. Our first taste of the wonder in store comes in the form of a field of golden yellow flowers that provide a pathway to the enchanted lands filled with swirling mists and mythological creatures. While the first half of the film served as a capable palace drama, the second half is where the film truly won me over with its inventive leaps in storytelling. Unbeknownst to him, Yasuna gets caught up with a pack of fox spirits that can take the form of humans. When the young female, Okon, assumes the form of Sakaki, everything that the film has been building towards comes together. Yasuna believes that things may finally be taking a turn towards the better, but he is living in a precarious situation that seems incapable of lasting. The film uses the common myth of the fox spirits tricking humans to tell a story of loss and love that is endlessly compelling.
The most impressive aspect of The Mad Fox is the incredibly stylish visuals that are unlike what we typically see in our American films. The movie is unafraid to jettison realism in favor of breaking down the walls of cinema. Uchida weaves in theatrical flourishes such as two-dimensional painted backgrounds and breakaway sets to tell the story he wants to tell in a pleasing manner. Even the way in which they executed the foxes on screen brought a huge smile on my face. Rather than create a weird puppet or anything of the sort, the film decided to instead tap into the world of kabuki theater and utilized fox masks as inventive stand-ins. Many movies get so wrapped up in trying to convince you that you are actually in a far-away land that they do not realize they could possibly deliver something just as satisfying if they leaned into the wonder of practical effects and innovative set design. The Mad Fox is quite an odd film, but that is what kept me invested the whole time. The way in which the film plays with the medium is something I appreciate as an audience member, and it makes me want to explore other works from this director even further.
This new Blu-Ray from Arrow Academy gives The Mad Fox an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1 derived from a master provided by Toei. The film has a pretty nice grain structure that preserves the filmic look of the picture, showcasing solid details in the palace and fields of flowers. The film was shot using the “Toeiscope” process which creates some unappealing moments of distortion along the edges of the frame. The color timing seems to have a slightly yellow push to the image. Colors show up on the screen nicely, especially in the fantastical latter half of the film. Black levels hold up fairly well with some admirable depth to the image. Some shots contain noticeable softness, but are contained to only a small portion of the film. There is no apparent damage to be found in this presentation with only minor instances of dirt and specks in the image. Overall, Arrow has done quite a nice job with this title.
This Blu-Ray comes with an LPCM 1.0 mono track in the original Japanese (with optional English subtitles). Dialogue sounds perfectly clear without sound effects or the score trouncing on important information. The film employs some playful sound effects that are given the appropriate weight within the mix. The period-appropriate score from Chûji Kinoshita comes through nicely in relation to the competing sounds. This is not a particularly dynamic presentation, but it presents everything accurately with pleasing fidelity and without damage or other unwanted issues.
- Audio Commentary by Jasper Sharp: Author and film critic Sharp is a wealth of information when it comes to Japanese cinema, which allows him to offer up some context to Uchida’s career and this film in particular. I learned a lot about the way in which this film was shot along with how it served as something of a precursor to the “Joys of Torture” films. If you are only going to have one major supplement on this disc, it is good that it is something as meaningful as this track.
- Theatrical Trailer: This nearly three-minute trailer plays up the themes of the film along with key visuals without much in the way of revealing plot points.
- Image Gallery: A collection of stylized stills from the film, background photos and promotional materials.
The Mad Fox is an inventive tale of loss and love that really comes alive when it stretches into the supernatural second half. The techniques that the creative team employed to bring their story to life offers up a mesmerizing series of visually arresting moments. Arrow Academy has delivered a Blu-Ray with a solid A/V presentation and a couple of worthwhile extras. If you are open to a film that expands on the ideas of ancient Japanese lore with a unique visual style, give this one a spin sooner rather than later. Recommended
The Mad Fox is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Arrow Academy has supplied a promo disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.