By Michael B. Murphy
Featuring an impressive lineup of actors, traditional Japanese musical instruments, and elements of chanbara cinema, Wolf’s Calling is a captivating short film/music video hybrid about a gun, a girl and the radical act of remembering.
In April of last year, director Toshiaki Toyoda (whose previous films include Blue Spring and 9 Souls) was arrested at his home on suspicion of possessing a firearm. Fortunately, the 51-year-old filmmaker was cleared of any wrongdoing and released from jail days later when investigators discovered his gun was actually a World War II-era family heirloom that no longer worked.
Promoted as Toyoda’s response to his arrest, the 17-minute short Wolf’s Calling is a contemplative and political tale about a girl reconnecting to her nation’s past after discovering a long-forgotten gun. It’s also a badass music video scored by the Japanese anti-modernist punk band Seppuku Pistols.
Warning: Spoilers Below
The story begins in the attic of an old home. A nameless young woman happens upon a revolver while clearing out the contents of a dresser drawer. Encased in a small wooden box that is adorned with an image of a wolf, the rusted gun lays dutifully wrapped in white cloth, as if it had been intended to be interred. Transfixed, she picks up the long-forgotten weapon and examines it, her fingertips softly caressing its contours. The dramatic sounds of a shakuhachi flute are heard as the camera cuts to the front door of the home, which has plastered on it the familiar image of the wolf. The camera begins to slowly stalk its way closer towards the door as the film’s story is transported to the past.
We are introduced to a determined ronin (played by Kiyohiko Shibukawa) as he journeys through a forest before ascending a stairway to a Shinto shrine where we yet again see images of the wolf. When reaching his destination he encounters two samurai. One clutches a pair of bloodied tabi (Tatsuya Nakamura), a quiet rage simmering in his eyes. More and more men begin to assemble at the shrine: a samurai (Kengo Kora) who carries with him a woman’s sash and kanzashi (presumably belonging to a lost lover); dozens of growling farmers (played by the 20 or so members of the aforementioned Seppuku Pistols); and, last but not least, the final warrior (Tadanobu Asano) whose arrival suggests business is about to pick up. Clearly the survivors of tragedy, the men look at one another with the understanding they now share a common purpose. The film’s score begins to roar with an intensity that only a cacophony of clanging bells, feverishly strummed strings and the beating of a dozen different drums could conjure.
For our newly united warriors, violence feels inevitable.
It is a moment that would fit right at home in any samurai classic. It’s an “assemble the team” sequence done well and one can’t help but desire seeing a feature-length samurai film starring this cast. The Kasosan Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture serves as the perfect filming location for this portion of the film. With its vibrant green foliage, moss-covered rocks, and fog snaking its way through densely packed trees, the world our samurai reside in feels truly from another time.
As soon as our heroes have come together the music stops. An ominous silence hangs in the air as the ronin looks up and glares directly into the camera, as if the viewer were an adversary. The music resumes as the sound of horses galloping and neighing can be heard. One by one, each warrior prepares for battle – blades are unsheathed, rifles are readied and farming tools are lifted menacingly. As the ronin steps to the forefront of the group, staring intensely at the viewer, he pulls the same revolver the young woman found in the attic out from his robe in slow motion. The camera cuts to a close-up shot of the weapon as the music becomes warped and discordant. The warriors march in unison towards conflict, the camera pulling back in retreat before lifting skyward.
We return to the young woman who is now sitting outside the home we had last seen her in. She’s still examining the gun with a quiet intensity, pondering its history. Lifting the gun and aiming, she pretends to shoot. Leaning her head back, she lets out a sigh while resting the gun on her lap.
Toyoda uses his short film to explore the idea that the past is an active force in the present. Take for example the post-credit scene which features a feudal-era warrior (Ryuhei Matsuda) standing sentry on a rooftop that over looks a modern Japanese city. He is depicted as an immortal protector of a nation for all time. There is also the girl who is clearly enthralled by the gun, its past becomes an active memory in her mind. While aiming it in her hands, she, for the only time in the film, expresses an emotion other than curiosity or boredom. She exudes determination.
In an illuminating moment from an interview with AsianMoviePulse.com five months after his arrest, Toyoda expressed his contempt for the current state of the Japanese government and shared his desire to make a film about guns. “I am quite angry at the Japanese state at the moment,” he said. “Japan, at this point in time, is a dangerous place to live. It has become a fascist state. And this will be in my next film about firearms.”
One senses that Toyoda finds it deeply concerning that those who swore to serve and protect the nation of Japan could mistake his antique gun, once used to protect his family and imbued with the history of an entire nation, as something dangerous.
In Toyoda’s mind, and in the world of Wolf’s Calling, there is clearly tension in the coexistence between past and present, tradition and modernity. By using the familiar language of Japanese samurai film and traditional music, Japan’s past is made alluring. But it is also made explicitly violent. Not only by the weapons wielded by the warriors but that the young woman’s conduit to the past is a literal gun. All this begs the question – if the past is a weapon, who wields its power? And who stands to be harmed by it?
Wolf’s Calling is one of the 42 films featured in this year’s edition of the JAPAN CUTS film festival. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s festival has gone completely digital and all of its films have been made available to rent online. Please head on over to the JAPAN CUTS website and watch a few films. It is always a good idea to support filmmakers and the festivals who create a space for them to share their art. Now more than ever.