Japan, 1915, the northern island of Hokkaidō. In the midst of the cold harsh winter, disaster strikes when a giant bear attacks: killing the man instantly, but taking the woman with him for some tasty dining later on. It is Red Spots, the infamous bear that is known for eating only women. He has already killed more than 10 females and is terrorizing the small villages on the island. For a long time, bear hunters have tried to kill him, but none of them have succeed. Enter hunter Eiji (Hiroyuki Sanada), who joins a group of fellow hunters to hunt down and kill it. While tracking the bear’s trail, he encounters a woman from his past (Mika Muramatsu) who has her own score to settle with the ruthless animal.
Based on true events that happened on Hokkaidō in 1915, I agree that the plot of Rimeinzu – utshukushiki yuu-shatachi, known here as Remains – Beautiful heroes or Yellow Fangs, doesn’t sound like Oscar winning material. But as with a great number of movies, even if the story is not that groundbreaking, it comes down to the how it is presented. Film is a visual medium and visually this story is brought to you in vivid colours and absolutely stunning cinematography. The locations are absolutely breathtaking as it was shot in the lush nature of Hokkaidō. Bonus points to director Chiba for taking his actors out there in the wild, which produces some nice eye candy for the viewer.
Hiroyuki Sanada, easily one of Japan’s coolest actors, has the lead role and does it well. Sanada is mostly known for his work in Hollywood films like The Last Samurai (2003) and the more recent The Wolverine (2013). But before those days he was an action star in Japan (and occasionally Hong Kong) starring in action and kung fu flicks at the end of the 70s and through the 1980s (most kung fu fans will know him from Ninja in the Dragon’s Den from 1982). In this film his acrobatic skills are not on the foreground, but here and there they surely shine through.
The film also was Mika Muramatsu’s acting debut, and sadly immediately her last film. Remains is her only film to date, for which she won a Japanese Academy Award for best newcomer of the year. It is a shame; I would have liked to see her in other films. I don’t know why she gave up acting after this, but her only performance in film is a job well done and she and Sanada have a nice chemistry.
Sanada and Muramatsu are directed by another of Japan’s coolest action heroes: Shin’ichi Chiba, better known in the West as Sonny Chiba (from Kill Bill). The film was Chiba’s directorial debut and it surely has a Chiba feel to it. What I mean with that is that the film has certain elements that wouldn’t have look out of place if Chiba himself would have been the lead actor in the scene. The camerawork and use of editing all have that Chiba feel and it works for the film. With an action star that has as much experience as Chiba behind the wheel, the action flows well on the screen.
So then one of the major elements of the film: the bear. In many shots real bears are used, but in the close encounters, you can’t help but notice that it is a man in a bear suit. This can be seen as a huge negative point, but it can also be seen as something that adds to the charm of the film. You simply love it or hate it. But writing this living in a time where everything rolls easily out of a computer, you can’t help but feel a little respect for that hardworking stuntman that was sweating his behind off jumping around in that big heavy suit. For me it absolutely adds to the atmosphere of the film as it displays an era in filmmaking where green screens and CGI weren’t that prominent yet.
Another element that definitely caught my attention is the music of the film. It is a nice soundtrack that gives the epic landscapes an extra power boost. It surely has an 80s sound to it, which makes it even better as it adds to the atmosphere of the time. And the cool thing is, the composer of the music is non other than lead actor Hiroyuki Sanada himself! Talk about being multi-talented.
Next to the main story line of hunting down the bear, Chiba attempts to put in an extra layer of the situation Hokkaidō was going through at the time: change. Hunters primarily inhabited Hokkaidō, but during the Taisho period, the country continued the trend of modernizing at rapid speed, which was set into motion in the Meiji period some 50 years before the events of the film. Nature is being destroyed for the construction of copper mines, and a few scenes are dedicated to this concept. It is a nice attempt to put in some depth in an otherwise kind of shallow story, but this little subplot doesn’t really flourish.
All in all, Remains – Beautiful Heroes surely is an enjoyable movie that may not have the best of stories, it does capture the atmosphere of a long gone era of Japanese filmmaking. It is a fun ride through the wild landscapes of Hokkaidō, with Hiroyuki Sanada sliding down steep snowy hillsides at top speed, chasing bears. Yes, that is as awesome as it sounds.
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