Monday, January 25, 2010

The Streetfighter (1974) review


Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba (Tokuma Tsurugi; Terry Tsurugi in English version), Masashi Ishibashi (Junjo Shikenbaru), Yutaka Nakajima (Sarai), Etsuko Shihomi (Nachi)

Directed by Shigehiro Ozawa

The calm before the storm

Ruthless martial arts fighter, Tokuma Tsurugi is a high priced, half breed mercenery hired by the Yakuza to kidnap a Japanese billionaires daughter in an effort to seize her deceased fathers assets. Meantime, Tokuma is pursued by a vicious Karate master named Junjo Shikenbaru. Having sprang him from jail at the behest of his younger brother and sister, Tsurugi becomes incensed when they can't pay his asking price. Tragedy ensues resulting in Junjo's younger brother being killed after falling out of a window. Selling Junjo's sister into prostitution to get his money, Tokuma is now hunted by the revenge seeking Junjo. Later, Tokuma seeks an audience with an aging Karate teacher, Kendo Masaoka, the uncle of the billionaire heiress. Challenging him, the two masters duel in a grueling match. Respecting the old man for his formidable fighting prowess, the hired killing machine realizes his skills can have a more honorable use. He then becomes the personal bodyguard of the heiress and takes on the Yakuza and their own personal army of quirky assassins single handed.

Sonny Chiba, one of the most indominatable screen personalities on the planet (not just Japan, but all of filmdom), stars in his most famous and gore drenched effort of his very long and illustrious career that's still going strong. Chiba, along with director, Shigehiro Ozawa create one of the screens most legendary and recognizable screen icons in all of exploitation cinema. Chiba and his character of Tokuma Tsurugi, the Street fighter of the title, has permeated American popular culture to a degree akin to that of Bruce Lee. There are a lot of people who may not have seen the film, but they know who Chiba is, or have heard of THE STREETFIGHTER.

Tokuma holds a gruesome prize in his hands after ripping a victims throat out

Regardless of his cult status, Sonny Chiba is one of the most mesmerizing and intimidating screen personas ever to grace a movie screen. Even when he's smiling, he looks like he could seriously maul you should you look at him wrong. His real name is Sadao Maeda and only later took on the legendary screen name of Shinichi Chiba. His more famous nickname, "Sonny", came about after he was featured in ads for Toyota's Sunny S model car. The name stuck especially when Chiba was being promoted on the international circuit. With the wild popularity of KEY HUNTER (1968-1973), Sonny Chiba was set for stardom both on the big screen and the small screens throughout Japan.

Tokuma Tsurugi challenges Kendo Masaoka, the Seibukan martial arts master

With the huge international success of KING BOXER (1972) and Bruce Lee's ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) in Japan, Toei decided to gamble on their own brand of martial madness. The result was THE STREETFIGHTER (1974), the first of a trilogy. Chiba's film about the most mean and nasty anti hero ever to punch his way onto a silver screen ended up becoming the first movie rated 'X' for violence alone.

Tsurugi battles one of the movies many villains

Severely edited for its US premier, the film proved popular enough with American audiences to warrant releases of the next two sequels as well as other Chiba flicks such as SHORINJI KENPO (1975 aka SHAOLIN KARATE aka THE KILLING MACHINE), KENKA KARATE KYOKUSHIN (KARATE BULL FIGHTER aka CHAMPION OF DEATH) and the fascinatingly bizarre samurai/ninja vs. modern day military movie SENGOKU JIEITAI (1979 aka TIME SLIP aka G.I. SAMURAI).

When Tokuma begins making bizarre faces and grunting sounds, one or more people are gonna suffer badly

Chiba plays his role of Tokuma in the most garish and outrageously over the top fashion imaginable. He constantly makes any number of facial contortions all the while grunting, snorting and making the most obscene sounds guaranteeing no matter who is on the screen, all eyes will be focused on him. The actor was gifted with one of the most striking and distinguishable faces in all of cinema. Sonny Chiba was born to play action roles. Even when he's simply smiling, he has this devilish visage that pierces the screen.

Breaking a bone just once isn't enough for Tsurugi

Tokuma is an interesting character in the annals of action movies. He's neither hero, nor villain. He's somewhere in between; although towards the end, he becomes more of a straight good guy, but still has no qualms about destroying another humans body. That's one of the most fascinating aspects of the character; Tokuma Tsurugi doesn't just make you suffer, he makes you pay. Not content with simply breaking a man's arm, he obliterates it, crushing it multiple times. Ditto for any other part of the human body.

"If you're gonna fight, fight dirty!" Tokuma removes a villain of his jewels

One scene has Tokuma crushing a man's skull and the screen gives us an x-ray view of the poor saps noggin being smashed. This shot was later reused in the Jet Li movie, ROMEO MUST DIE (2000). Another scene has Tokuma ripping a man's extremities from his body in seriously gory fashion. Ensuring the maximum amount of audience nauseousness, the camera lingers on Tokuma and his nasty facial expression while holding onto his bloody trophy. The blood flows freely amidst a shower of gore, shattered limbs, screams of pain and the loudest bone breaking sounds you're likely to ever hear in a movie. Director Ozawa and especially Chiba himself want the audience to feel the pain as much as the victims onscreen.

A crony spits up a mouth full of teeth after taking a punch to the mouth from THE STREETFIGHTER

There's little doubt that THE STREETFIGHTER is Sonny Chiba's most famous and best loved movie in America. He has done better movies, but he's so damn good in this role as the maniacal bone breaking mercenary, that it totally overshadows his other more accomplished features. Chiba returned to the role for two sequels, RETURN OF THE STREETFIGHTER and THE STREETFIGHTERS LAST REVENGE in 1974, one of his busiest years. The first sequel is enjoyable enough (even though there's a bit of stock footage taken from the first film), but the third film is terrible. In that film, there has been some serious tampering with the character and the film as a whole is totally unmemorable although the English dubbed version offers up even more unintended hilarity.

Masashi Ishibashi as Junjo Shikenbaru

Among the cast of THE STREETFIGHTER are a number of other luminaries featured in so many of Chiba's other pictures. Real life Karate master, Masashi Ishibashi plays one of the main antagonists, Junjo. It is he that Tokuma saves from the hangman's noose at the beginning and it is he who seeks revenge against Tokuma for selling his sister into prostitution because she and her other brother failed to pay the mercenary's required amount for his services(!) Ishibashi played villains in other Sonny Chiba movies (he reprised his role of Junjo for the sequel) as well as passive roles on occasion. He also features in numerous Chiba television series such as the SHADOW WARRIORS programs. Etsuko Shihomi (who plays Junjo's ill fated sister) was one of Chiba's most successful acolytes having a healthy career in action movies and television shows under the JAC (Chiba's Japan Action Club) banner.

Ratnose (Rakuda), after revealing the location of Sarai to save Tokuma's life, pleads with his only friend to not abandon him

Also among the myriad quirky characters is a doting sidekick named Ratnose (Rakuda in the Japanese version). Assuming a role akin to a nagging housewife, Ratnose is hopelessly devoted to Tokuma for saving him from certain death. He ultimately loses his only friend towards the end for disobeying his masters orders, but makes amends in one of the more poignant (and this scene contains a modicum of bizarre humor) scenes in the movie during the conclusion.

Endoshi, the knife thrower (left) & Moroko, the blind assassin (right)

As would become the norm in most all of Chiba's Toei's productions both on the big screen and television (as well as many, many anime series'), there is a menagerie of eccentric villains on display that adds a colorful exponent to an already crowded group of antagonists. There's a flamboyant knife thrower, a blind swordsman and a huge bald headed wrestler amongst the group of Yakuza and Triad gangsters vying for the beautiful Sarai's riches.

The point at which Tokuma reveals his human side; after many scenes of bone breaking brutality, you'd never expect the man to shed a tear

The following scene showing Tokuma approaching the Sarai vessel out at sea is one of the movies strongest moments. The look on Chiba's face is one of both sorrow and rage. In this shot, Chiba makes no faces, but his expression speaks volumes and you can almost detect another tear trying to break free from his eye sockets.

Tokuma and Junjo prepare to duel to the death

Needless to say, the concluding battle in and around the oceanliner is one of the bloodiest and most emotion filled brawls in action cinema and recalls the adrenaline charged violence of Chang Cheh's movies for Shaw Brothers Studios in Hong Kong. In the same year, Chiba played a very similar role in another wildly gruesome action picture entitled THE EXECUTIONER (CHOKUGEKI! JIGOKU-KEN; DIRECT HIT! HELL FIST) as well as its one sequel, THE EXECUTIONER 2 (KARATE INFERNO). But it's THE STREETFIGHTER that remains the constant and ultimate Sonny Chiba blood drenched extravaganza in the minds of his fans. Whether you like it or not, this iconic, out of control film is one of the most enduring and influential international action pictures of all time. Without the presence of Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba, THE STREETFIGHTER would, in all likelihood, have been just another run of the mill Karate picture from Japan.

For a sampling of Chiba on the small screen, check out the KAGE NO GUNDAN 2 overview as well as reviews of the entire 26 episode run (broken up into sets of four episodes a piece) of the Chiba ninja program KAGE NO GUNDAN 2 found by episode in the search box above, or by clicking one of the links to the right.

This review is representative of the Optimum Asia R2 DVD
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