Wolf’s Calling (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

Retaliating against his arrest by Japanese police in April 2019 for a possession of a handgun, filmmaker Toshiaki Toyoda made a 16 minute near silent film, Wolf’s Calling. Finding the firearm to be a World War II era familial legacy, Toshiaki was released, but the filmmaker took the experience severely.

Wolf’s Calling alternates between the present and the past. A young woman (Yukazu Ito of the Japanese band Oledickfoggy) cleaning a dusty attic finds a wooden box, the cover of which has a faded paper picture of a wolf and religious iconography. She opens the box, places the piece of ivory coloured cloth in her palms and briskly peels its layers to reveal an old, rusted handgun. Ominously zooming in on a same wolf picture plastered on the front door of her home, the scene abruptly cuts to the back of a ronin walking determinedly in a lush forest. His hands at his sides, fisted, and his sword held firmly in its sheath at his waist, he is a man on a mission. This turn to jidai-geki is a narrative sudden swerve, as is the frenzy of the percussion-based background score (by punk rock band Seppuku Pistols) that runs through. But Toyoda himself is a man on a mission as he sets out to justify his ownership of the old handgun.

As the ronin (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) ascends the steps to a Shinto wolf shrine, other samurai and armed villagers too descend upon the temple with loud cries of battle and aggressive expressions. Toyoda crafts his characters’ introductions with exaggerated dramatic flair using high angle shots through fog and dense foliage, slow motion movements, and frequent face close-ups, extending time tediously. The actors, many of whom are heavyweights of contemporary Japanese cinema – Tadanobu Asano, Kengo Kora, Ryuhei Matsuda, Tatsuya Nakamura – are unsurprisingly ace.

Yet it all seems facile and contradictorily amusing even though the graveness of the situation is insinuated at via the visual of a kid’s torn, bloodied socks and a woman’s sash and Kanzashi pin thrown down as a reminder of the group’s purpose. Blatantly evoking thematics of two seminal films, Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) in how villagers and seven lone wolves aka ronin unite to fight a hellish tyrant, and more pointedly Yojimbo (1961), where samurai come to use American imported handguns to disastrous, unsuccessful ends, Toyoda is unable to meaningfully re-interpret these themes uniquely for his film. When Kiyohiko’s ronin over-dramatically comes forward from the group, reveals his hidden handgun and awaits the supposed enemy, it is an empty physical re-enactment of Tatsuya Nakadai’s samurai’s iconic scenes with a handgun in Yojimbo.

If Toyoda expects to seek refuge in Kurosawa’s samurai films, he fails to recognise that although Kurosawa came from a samurai family and possessed samurai swords that his father treasured, he not only wore this familial legacy lightly, but purposefully rendered the significance of samurai weaponry ineffectual in his films, specifically Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, the two masterworks Toyoda uses to shape the narrative of Wolf’s Calling.

In the present, the young woman now sitting on her low garden wall, mock aims and shoots from the old gun. She then sighs and looks to the sky in boredom laying the gun down on her lap. Toyoda thus seems to vigorously defend his ownership of the old handgun, in that it elicits no interest today let alone pose a danger for others, even though it held immense value in times gone by. He is amiss in his understanding when he questions the unbinding power of the law. A handgun of yore can still be a threat today.

Wolf’s Calling eventually comes across as a petulant teenager’s retaliation, made by a man in his fifties, against what could be a legitimate action taken by Japanese law enforcers given Toyoda’s prior police trouble and who perhaps was rightly called out for the gun he has in his personal possession.

Wolf’s Callings is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.