The Mad Fox
June 21, 2020 · 0 comments
by Jeremy Clarke.
The second Tomu Uchida film to receive a Blu-ray release after the black and white Bloody Spear At Mount Fuji (1955) is the colour The Mad Fox a.k.a. Love, Thy Name Be Sorrow (1962). This extraordinary and arresting Heian period (794-1185) fantasy drama involves an astrologer, his adopted daughter, her wicked stepmother, the two women’s lovers, the daughter’s identical twin sister and a family of shape-shifting fox spirits. Contrasting heavily with the earlier samurai road movie which used Mount Fuji as an excuse to block a road for a picnic, The Mad Fox again invokes the iconic volcano in a very different, far more active and indeed violent role as it threatens to erupt, presaging a time of great chaos. The film, meanwhile, makes judicious use of Toei’s animation wing, lending out art director Reiji Koyama and animators Yasuji Mori and Yasuo Otsuka to provide integrated effects.
The opening five minutes sets the tone, via a lengthy and convoluted voice-over detailing the plot’s setup to a calm, tranquil music score, while a scroll is unrolled and the camera pans. slowly and steadily, right to left along it through a green and ochre landscape. The initial unrolling of the scroll is clearly executed by physical object animation. The subsequent panning shot continues in stop-motion through the voice-over’s various scenarios. The Emperor Suzaku’s trusted astrologer Yasunori looks after a sacred scroll called The Golden Crow. Having no children and following an oracle’s advice, he sends his two disciples Yasuna and Doman to find a suitable girl to be his heir. The voice-over tells of long, hard journeys but the visuals from this point show only Yasuna with no sign of Doman. In the distant village of Izumi, Yasuna finds two twin sisters Sakaki and Kazunoha. He takes the older Sakaki back to Kyoto and leaves the younger Kazunoha behind grief-stricken. The panning background gives way to yellow, anticipating the yellow vegetation amid which Yasuna (Hashizo Okawa) will later descend into madness.
The erupting Mount Fuji is augmented by sudden zooming, a lurch into a crimson palette and violent shamisen/horn music. Clouds of smoke suggest dragons and chaos alongside a blood-red moon and a white wisp tinged by the crimson which will shortly be described in the dialogue as a white rainbow. An animated establishing shot in dark reds and oranges closes in on the Imperial palace balcony. Then a tighter shot shows the balcony in more detail with live actors standing behind it portraying the Emperor and his advisors. Peerless art direction makes the balcony itself look for all the world like animation in this last shot rendering the cut from the previous shot seamless as we move into live-action proper.
This opening sequence is not only key to what follows but also quite unlike anything else in the remainder. The film’s first half is set in and around the Yasunori household involving the scheming of the two women and their lovers until the house goes up in flames, while its second half shows Yasuna’s journey into the countryside, descent into madness and involvement with two women resembling Sakaki. The second of whom is a fox spirit.
What befalls the characters constantly defies audience expectations. The Emperor Suzaku and his advisors barely get a look-in while astrologer Yasunori (Ajunya Usami) is swiftly killed by bandits in a nearby forest. That seems to leave his wife (Sumiko Hidaka) and adopted daughter Sakaki (Michiko Saga) as the major players. The wife hates the daughter and wants the family inheritance for both herself and the less than trustworthy Doman (Shinji Amano) while Sakaki vouches for the honest Yasuna believing him the astrologer’s favoured disciple.
The wife has the key to the room in which the box containing the scroll is kept, while Sakaki has the key to the box. When Sakaki opens the box for the Emperor the scroll is missing, arousing his suspicions that Sakaki has stolen it. The wife has Sakaki tortured by minion Akuemon (Rin’ichi Yamamoto) who pulls and releases an archer’s bow with one end and the cord fatally pressed against Sakaki’s throat while Yasuna is forced to watch. This unpleasant exploitation sequence stands out both from everything else here and the classical era of Japanese cinema, which was drawing to its end in the early sixties, anticipating Toei’s more violent output later in the decade.
Yasuna uncovers the wife’s dastardly plot and the house burns down in the ensuing struggle, leaving him to wander the countryside obsessed with the departed Sakaki, passing though a distinctive field of yellow flowers on a revolving Toei soundstage before eventually arriving in Izumi village to mistake Kuzunoha for her deceased elder twin sister. This is an understandable error, since both characters are played by Michiko Saga and Kuzunoha goes along with Yasuna’s delusion. If Sakaki isn’t a main character as such however, Michiko Saga most definitely is. Saga plays not only both twin sisters but also a fox spirit who falls for Yasuna, assumes the form of the younger twin to live with him and bears him a child without him realising she’s not human.
The property was originally a Bunraku puppet theatre play in 1734 which was performed soon afterwards in the Kabuki theatre. Uchida borrows from these traditions in his portrayal of fox spirits on the screen by having the relevant actors wear fox masks whenever they abandon human form. This essentially theatrical device proves surprisingly effective on the big screen. Uchida further develops the illusion of these characters with a number of striking devices. Occasional shots employ extremely beautiful drawn animation. Burning torches carried by black clad performers against black backgrounds make the torch flames appear to move of their own volition in the few scenes in which they are double exposed. A small amount of wire work is also exploited to great effect to show a garden gate slamming shut by psychic force and a baby flying from a cradle into its fox-mother’s arms. These techniques may be used sparingly but their use is so perfectly judged that they add a great deal to a whole which ultimately proves far, far greater than the sum of its hugely disparate parts. The whole thing is an unexpected gem. As for the animators, all three would soon be leaving Toei for the world of TV animation. Koyama would go on to become art director on the groundbreaking TV series Star of the Giants (1968), Mori’s finest hour was arguably on Heidi (1974) and Otsuka would eventually end up at Studio Ghibli.