Available in the US for the first time, The Mad Fox is the second of Tomu Uchida’s films to get an Arrow release (Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji was the first) and it doesn’t get better than this. Before switching seamlessly into the opening credits, a picture scroll provides some backstory: it is the Heian period (Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp talks more about the historical basis for the film in his commentary track) and Yasunori (Ryûnosuke Tsukigata) is the emperor’s astrologer and keeper of the Golden Crow, a scroll that only Yasunori can interpret. It’s so sacred that two keys are needed to access the scroll. One is with his adopted daughter, Sakaki (Michiko Saga). The other is with his wife (Sumiko Hidaka) but, unbeknownst to Yasunori, his wife has been conspiring with his disciple, Doman (Shinji Amano), and their treachery leads to tragedy.
Doman isn’t Yasunori’s only disciple. There’s also Yasuna (Hashizô Ôkawa), and the love story between him and Sakaki in this movie is achingly beautiful. Saga plays three different roles in The Mad Fox. The first isn’t a spoiler because viewers are told that Sakaki was separated from her twin sister right away, but Saga makes you care about all of her roles no matter how loyal you might think you’ve become towards one.
Ôkawa’s performance is heartbreaking, and the art direction by Takatoshi Suzuki adds to the emotion. The Mad Fox is based on a Bunraku puppet play that was later performed as a kabuki play and, rather than approach the story differently for the big screen, Uchida uses those theater techniques.
As Sharp explains in his commentary track, there’s a “self-conscious theatricality” to Bunraku plays and the same is true of The Mad Fox. At one point, Yasuna dances in order to express his grief and gets surrounded by a curtain. It feels like a private struggle, but then the curtain drops, and you realize he’s not alone.
Likewise, all that’s needed to transform into a kitsune in this movie is to wear a mask, but that would never fly in films or TV today (unfortunately). Think of the werewolves on MTV’s Teen Wolf, who had to go through a whole transformation (coincidentally, it was Teen Wolf that introduced me to kitsune).
As far as commentaries go, Sharp is able to provide a lot of background on the different actors, along with recommendations for films to watch after The Mad Fox. I still had a lot of questions (like why the film depicts torture the way that it does), but that’s because there’s so much going on in this movie and Sharp’s commentary isn’t solely geared for beginners.
It’s a shame that commentaries aren’t subtitled because I know I missed some names from not knowing how to spell them. Ronald Cavaye’s essay is really helpful for terminology, while Hayley Scanlon’s essay made me realize I had a different take on the movie’s ending. Arrow only includes essay booklets with their first pressings, so don’t miss out on this one.
The Mad Fox is available now on Blu-Ray from Arrow Films.