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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Karate Bullfighter (1975) review


Sonny Chiba (Masutatsu "Mas" Oyama), Narita Mikio (Nakasone), Masashi Ishibashi (Nanba), Yumi Takigawa (Chiyako), Jiro Chiba (Shogo Ariake)
Directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi

The Short Version: Sonny Chiba tackles one of his most famous roles playing his real life master, Masutatsu Oyama, a man whose real life was as exciting as any cinematic depiction. The possessor of the 'God Hand', Oyama became infamous for killing bulls barehanded even slicing off their horns with those same hands. Breaking the bones of challengers whether hitting back, or simply blocking, his person grew into legend status that led to a popular manga and culminated in a trilogy of beloved films. BULLFIGHTER is a must see dramatic Karate cum exploitation picture for fans of both the indominatable Mas Oyama and the indefatigable Sonny Chiba.

After the end of WW2, Japan holds its first ever Karate Championship tournament. A man in a ragged, torn gi arrives and enters the tournament at the last minute. Easily defeating everyone else, the sponsor and Senbukan gyms chairman, Nakasone, wishes to groom the rough fist fighter bearing the name, Masutatsu Oyama. Declining the offer, Oyama's demeanor and unbeatable fighting spirit attracts lots of trouble that leads to tragedy and death.

Having been trained by the world renowned martial artist, Mas Oyama, it was only natural that Sonny Chiba--who a year before had given the world one of the most iconic 'real mean bastards' in the form of Takuma Tsurugi--should essay the role of his famous bull slaying master. This was the first of three Toei films built around the iconic founder of Kyokushin (Ultimate Truth) Karate and while elements of truth existed in at least this first movie, the succeeding two entries fell further into the realm of pure popcorn entertainment. The second film had Oyama battling a great grizzly bear bare handed and the third saw "God Hand" getting involved in the wrestling business. Before delving into the exceptional martial arts picture that is KARATE BULLFIGHTER, let's look at the films inspiration.

The real Oyama during the opening credits

Oyama was actually Korean. Born in 1923, Yong I Choi lived in Manchuria as a young boy before embarking to Japan at age 15 to become a fighter pilot where he changed his name to Masutatsu Oyama. He eventually lost interest in aviation training, but excelled in building his body and studying the martial arts attaining an incredibly high standard at barely 20 years old. At 23 Oyama spent over a year atop Mt. Minobu, the same mountain where Miyamoto Musashi had honed his indominitable sword style. Upon descending the mountain, Mas Oyama won the first post war National Karate Championships (which is depicted in the movie). After this, he retreated to Mt. Kiyozumi to continue his training, this time more ardently than before.

It's at this point in his life during the early 50s that he began attracting a lot of attention for incredible feats of strength and unfathomable ability. In an effort to test his skills and see if all those months of intensely torturous training had paid off, Mas Oyama decided the best, albeit most dangerous way would be to fight bulls barehanded. He faced down a total of 52 bulls, three of which were reportedly killed from a single blow. He was also acclaimed for slicing the horns from many of the beasts using only his hand. Sources vary that anywhere between 36 to 49 horns were removed by Oyama's literal Five Fingers of Death. Battling bulls obviously wasn't an easy task and Oyama was nearly killed by one during a "bullfight" in Mexico in 1957.

Oyama also fought innumerable human challengers with these fights ending quickly and often times with his opponents gaining broken bones either from Oyama merely blocking their attack, or delivering one himself. He opened his first dojo in 1956 and promoted his interpretation of "Real Karate" (as in full contact), constructed by Oyama as the only true way to learn the art. Because of the arduous strain and pounding toll taken on the human body from this type of training, his turnover rate was extremely high. But there was no doubt that training under the man who became known as "God Hand" required an unwavering degree of dedication and determination. His Kyokushin (Ultimate Truth) school was officially established in 1964 garnering hundreds of thousands of students around the world.

As his fights and feats grew to an Herculean level, his legend was born in a popular Japanese comic book in the early 70s entitled KARATE BAKA ICHIDAI (written by Ikki Kajiwara, who also authored the manga that was the basis for Chiba's THE BODYGUARD filmed in 1973). This of course led to Toei's fantastic and fictional trilogy about Masutatsu "Mas" Oyama, the role undertaken by the redoubtable Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba. Incidentally, Chiba had also starred as the real life martial artist Doshin So, the founder of Shorinji Kempo (Shaolin Karate), in the bloody fictional biopic, THE KILLING MACHINE also released in 1975.

Oyama in an issue of Karate International volume 4 issue #8

Oyama was the advisor on the set of these films and the trilogy does feature incidents out of Oyama's life, but also takes artistic license with others to fashion a film that intermingles real life with pseudo exploitation. Oddly enough, a Korean movie about Oyama entitled FIGHTER IN THE WIND (2004), was nearly identical to the first film starring Sonny Chiba, only with modern special effects and more refined filmmaking techniques. Ten years prior in 1994, Mas Oyama passed away. Some sources list the cause as lung cancer and others say pneumonia. Either way, Oyama was the personification, the living embodiment of a champion in both the martial arts and in life itself. Who better than his student Chiba to bring his character to life on the big screen?

Sonny Chiba instills a great deal of what made his personality so defining within the parameters of Japanese martial arts cinema. With the international popularity of Chinese kung fu movies spearheaded by the Shaw Brothers and taken to bigger, if brief prominence by Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba was Japan's answer to the world famous 'Little Dragon'. Released in America as CHAMPION OF DEATH in 1977, Chiba had yet another hit on his hands. The film had a little bit of everything including Chiba breaking Coke bottles with his bare hands, battling bulls and beating the beejeezus out of various opponents and challengers. The film concludes in a blood bath where Chiba pulverizes an oppressive band of Karate students (lorded over by perennial villain, Narita Mikio) determined to keep him from participating in anymore tournaments.

Again Chiba refines his infamous STREETFIGHTER character retaining that persona's brutality, but at the same time differentiating himself from the caveman qualities that made Takuma Tsurugi so memorable. Just like in THE STREETFIGHTER (1974), Chiba destroys his opponents in his portrayal of Oyama, but adds some complexity by questioning the morality of fighting and killing. Everywhere the man goes, he's challenged, threatened and ultimately must fight back because there's no other option. At one point he takes on a student (which Oyama did in real life) named Shogo (played by Chiba's younger brother, Jiro) who eventually kills a man in a fight out of anger after he insults him as a "disciple of evil Karate". Pursued by the law, the violent acts perpetrated by his student does nothing but continue to put Oyama and his unorthodox methods in a bad light. Surrounded, Shogo is brutally shot down by the police. Going into seclusion, violence continues to follow Oyama till he finally explodes unleashing his "Ultimate Truth" Karate in true Sonny Chiba style during a wild and bloody finale.

The director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi apparently had a good rapport with Chiba as he worked with him multiple times throughout the 1970s, predominantly and most memorably during the latter part of the decade. Totaling seven films together, these included WANDERING GINZA BUTTERFLY: SHE-CAT GAMBLER (1972), WOLFGUY: THE ENRAGED LYCANTHROPE (1975) and one of their best collaborations, KARATE WARRIORS (1976). The erratic, ADD encumbered cinematography of Yoshio Nakajima was the "black sheep" of this team. Taking venerable HK director Chang Cheh's innovation of a hand held style to new heights, Whenever an action scene erupts onscreen, Nakajima's camera takes the stance of the "subjective fighter" essentially becoming a participant in the action. This may have been perceived as cutting edge at the time, but it does little now but annoy and may bring about motion sickness. Thankfully, Nakajima's kinetic camera never ruins any fights, it just has trouble sitting still when fists and feet are flying.

Writing duties for BULLFIGHTER was the work of one of Japan's unsung exploitation directorial talents, Norifumi Suzuki. His writing credits are just as impressive as the films he directed and he often did both. Suzuki also directed Chiba in the same year's SHORINJI KEMPO aka THE KILLING MACHINE and later in the period historical fantasy SHOGUN'S NINJA (1980) wherein Chiba played the lead villain and the 1982 throwback ROARING FIRE featuring Chiba as a top hat wearing magician martial artist aiding Hiroyuki Sanada.

The script is actually a bit more developed beyond sensationalizing Oyama's life. Spending so much time in isolation devoid of others surely does something to the human psyche when one does finally re-enter civilization. Oyama constantly ponders his actions and the consequences of them. After winning the tournament then discarding his trophy as not being a true representation of his perception of true Karate, he happens upon a young lady named Chiyako he had saved from thugs some years earlier. Believing her to be a prostitute for the Americans occupying Japan, he decides to give her back her "dignity" so to speak by raping her(!) It's noticeable that this action has troubled Oyama and shortly thereafter he asks her to marry him. He also explains he didn't rape her because he hated America, but because he desired her. Chiyako's response is that she can't forgive a man who has trampled her heart. Oyama then looks befuddled in an attempt to understanding the concept of the human heart. It's interesting to note that in a later scene, Oyama admits to his new student Shogo that he "loves her, but loves Karate more."

Oyama also doubts the purpose of Karate after he kills a gangster in self defense. The dead man's wife and child see him at the police station and scold Oyama for leaving them without both a husband and a father regardless of what type of man he was. At this point, he forsakes the practice of Karate instead dedicating his time to helping the now fatherless family. Of course, this doesn't stop Mas Oyama's enemies nor those jealous of his skills from trying to silence him. Ironically, it's the gradual love and eventual forgiveness of this crippled family unit that spurs him on to not abandon his art. It's here during the last fifteen minutes where the exploitation elements take over till the end. Oyama challenges Nakasone after discovering he had sent assassins to kill him. Kyokushin's creator battles it out with dozens of fighters in a field eliminating them all in brutal and sometimes gory fashion till Nanba, his sole rival is left to fight.

One of the interesting things about this script is how closely the 2004 Korean version/remake adheres to it. It takes a less comic book approach to the material making attempts to ground Oyama the man in reality as opposed to the older film heightening the outlandish potential of embellishing his exploits that in turn make his true persona diminutive by comparison. BULLFIGHTER has truth, fluctuating between realism and sensationalism, but puts a heavier accent towards the latter which is carried over in the 2004 version, only that film balances the two more evenly. Still, the time periods are vastly different. The 1970s demanded escapism and Oyama's real life exploits were rife for cinematic tinkering that showed an Oyama whose actions could only be replicated on the pages of a wildly popular manga.

KARATE BULLFIGHTER (1975) is a hugely enjoyable movie and ranks among Sonny Chiba's best works. There's a good degree of subtext here that seems to get overlooked in favor of the undeniable magnetism of the films star and the plentiful scenes of action. There's an effective balance between characters motivations and morality as well as Chiba's brutal brand of fight choreography that his fans clamor for and the comic book machinations built around the all too real legend that is Masutatsu Oyama.

This review is representative of the Adness/Ventura DVD


Ty said...

Great write-up! Will have to check this out. Love Sonny Chiba!

venoms5 said...

Hi, Ty! Thanks for the kind words and if you love Chiba, this is one of his best movies. The other two are good as well.

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