A movie as stylish and surprising as Tomu Uchida's The Mad Fox had to crawl out of the dustbin of movie history some day. An almost indescribably odd hybrid of folk tale and melodrama, The Mad Fox has been recently rediscovered along with many key postwar works by Uchida, a Japanese filmmaker whose movies were long neglected by critics from the West.
Since his films began to surface again in the late nineties, the director - who died in 1970 - has been edging into the pantheon of Japanese masters. To see such a reassessment take place surely gives Hollywood's least-lionized directors some hope; maybe the critics of the 22nd century will even have something nice to say about Michael Bay ( Transformers).
A Cinematheque Ontario retrospective starting this weekend, Fugitive From the Past: Discovering Japanese Master Tomu Uchida, celebrates an industrious filmmaker who rarely settled in one genre for long. Along with Uchida's sole surviving silent film (1933's Policeman), the series includes domestic dramas, samurai movies and crime stories.
But The Mad Fox - which kicks off the series tonight at 7:30 p.m. - is the rare film that defies any effort at categorization. Set in turn-of-the-first-millennium Japan, it begins in the house of a master astrologer who must interpret various foreboding signs for the benefit of the royal court. But a rivalry between the astrologer's two disciples leads to a fiery tragedy. One of the students, Yasuno, wanders the countryside mad with grief over the death of his fiancée. His pain is assuaged by his encounters with not just the fiancée's identical twin sister but a shape-shifting talking fox. By this point, Uchida has fully abandoned the relatively naturalistic manner of the early scenes in favour of a colourful and unabashedly theatrical style. Such is the 1962 film's audacity, even viewers accustomed to today's CGI-glutted spectaculars may need to pick their jaws up off the floor.
Though Killing in Yoshiwara - an Uchida title from 1960 that screens Monday at 7:30 p.m. - is more conventional in nature, it also packs a wallop. A sordid tale with strong echoes of The Blue Angel, it's a melodrama about a Japanese businessman who longs to meet a woman who isn't repulsed by the birthmark on his face. Unfortunately, when he finally does, she's a conniving prostitute in Yoshiwara, Edo's red-light district.
Like his stylistic heir, Shohei Imamura, Uchida often displayed a blackly cynical view of human behaviour; indeed, the prostitute is but a fraction as venal as her fellow denizens of Yoshiwara. Yet his protagonists also possess a vigour and boldness that perfectly complement Uchida's fearless, punchy manner as a filmmaker, qualities that align him less with Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi than pulp-friendly American counterparts such as Samuel Fuller and Anthony Mann. The intervening decades do little to blunt the force of Uchida's best movies and wildest moves.
Fugitive from the Past: Discovering Japanese Master Tomu Uchida runs through Nov. 14 in the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall, 317 Dundas St. W., 416-968-FILM or http://www.cinemathequeontario.ca.