The Mad Fox is a 1962 drama directed by Tomu Uchida (Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji), and tells the story of a mythically-depicted medieval Japan, wherein court astrologer Yasunori foretells a great disturbance that threatens to split the realm in two.
Opening with a moving tapestry accompanied by narration that sets up the story, The Mad Fox establishes its tone of myth and folklore, and throughout takes inspiration from kabuki and bunraku.
Influences can especially be seen in an extensive sequence partway through the film as the main protagonist dances in a golden-clad landscape to a sorrowful song and as the sequence ends, the tapestry drops to reveal a new scene, blurring the lines between studio and on-location shooting.
Director Tomu Uchida uses stunning and wildly stylised widescreen tableaux – expressionist sets and colour schemes – to drive this artistic direction forward, with aesthetically pleasing results.
The Mad Fox is presented in such a fashion that it almost feels like a hazy dream at times, full of theatrics and a unique visual prowess that also presents a narrative that weaves around the tragedies surrounding the characters.
The plot of The Mad Fox almost feels like a tale of two halves, with a lot of courtly drama and intrigue happening in the first half as Yasunori’s disciples: main protagonist Yasuna and his rival Doman end up in a power struggle over a secret Chinese book containing secrets that could quell the concerns of the people over foretold tragedy. This results in tragedy and betrayal as Yasuna’s lover Sakaki ends up dead.
As Yasuna falls further into grief-infused madness, he encounters Sakaki’s younger sister and is informed that the Crown Prince is unable to father a child. He is then sent to hunt a White Female Fox meant to cure the curse placed upon the Prince.
This gives way to the presence of shape-shifting fox spirits and further tragedy as a female fox falls for Yasuna and tricks him into falling in love with her, taking on the form of his dead lover.
It’s not the easiest film to follow on a first viewing but the costumes and sets alone make it a joy for the eyes. The use of traditional animation, alongside numerous instances of practical effects and stagecraft make The Mad Fox impressive from a technical perspective too, even if you aren’t overly enthused by the plot itself.
I personally found myself appreciating the film more for its craftsmanship and visual beauty than the actual plot and characters for much of the narrative, though the actors certainly give a set of solid performances that enhance the theatrical approach that Uchida drives throughout.
Fans of Japanese mythology may have seen similar themes in anime like Fuse: Memoirs of The Hunter Girl or series like Mushishi which sometimes present the surrealism or folklore and the effects it has on others. In terms of live action films, the 1964 Masaki Kobayashi classic Kwaidan also tells stories of Japanese folklore and tragedy. Those who enjoy these sorts of stories would likely appreciate The Mad Fox, especially if they have an interest in kabuki.
Arrow Films, under their Arrow Academy label deliver The Mad Fox in HD, making it available outside of Japan for the first time. The hazy and dreamlike qualities of the film at times present a blurrier image than usual but the colour and presentation shines through and finally brings this film to the West in a satisfying way.
The disc also contains a commentary by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp, recorded exclusively for this release, a theatrical trailer and image gallery. The release also has a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin, and first pressings of the release contain an illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by Ronald Cavaye and Hayley Scanlon.
Overall, The Mad Fox is a visual treat and cinematically intriguing. Director Tomu Uchida crafts a lavish and engaging narrative which is finally available in the West and would make a worthwhile addition to the collections of any fans of Japanese cinema.