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Monday, September 19, 2011

Karate Warriors (1976) review


Sonny Chiba (Chieko), Isao Natsuyagi (Mizuki), Yayoi Watanabe (Genko), Hideo Murota (Nisha), Eiji Go (Iga), Tatsuo Umemiya (gangster), Akiko Koyama (Yumi), Ben Amatsu

Directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi

The Short Version: Yamaguchi, the director responsible for Sonny Chiba's classic OYAMA trilogy returns to guide the icon in this interesting modernist Chambara/western bereft of the wild absurdities that often dominate Chiba's movies. An aura of colorful comic shenanigans enters the picture towards the end, but predominantly its a heart-felt affair in a re-telling of YOJIMBO (1961) complete with a clashing of the past and present, a search for millions in stashed heroin, sex, gory action and a pitiable, pushed around little boy who only wants a family. One of Chiba's best films that successfully melds poignancy and pathos with sex and violence.

Chieko, a drifter and lone fist for hire, finds work between two sibling gangs warring for territorial superiority in addition to seeking the whereabouts of millions in heroin hidden away in a secret location. Formerly one gang, the group split after their honorable leader, Kenzo died and his savage successor, Koreko--who hid the high dollar heroin--was imprisoned for murder shortly after taking over. Chieko heats up the blood battle between the two brothers while a devious mobster whore works them all for her own gains. Meanwhile, a silent samurai with son, clinging to his country's old ways, works for one of the cartel, yet retains the fortitude of Bushido. Amidst the violent clashes to find the concealed drugs, the little boy is caught in the middle and made both a pawn and a target of the vicious gangsters.

One of Sonny Chiba's best movies is this variant on his popular Takuma Tsurugi STREETFIGHTER character that also acts as a remake of Kurosawa's YOJIMBO (1961) and a dose of the LONE WOLF series for good measure. Chiba plays a 'Lone Wolf' of sorts a veritable mercenary for hire; a somewhat underhanded individual, but one with an emotional side especially towards children. It's a complex character and one that was a lot different from the brutal comic book caricatures of many of Chiba's other movies. KARATE WARRIORS, like Chiba's earlier THE BODYGUARD (1973), is a fascinating movie, only not for reasons of exploitation cinema history as that picture was. KARATE WARRIORS derives its immersive qualities from how it subverts, or expands on themes, characters and ideas from prior Japanese productions.

Chieko is similar to the iconic actors portrayal of Takuma Tsurugi in that he is mainly out for himself personifying the dividing line between a hero and a villain. Aside from that, both are vastly different. Chieko even makes the statement, "I don't fight dirty", while the mantra, "If you've gotta fight, fight dirty!" was used to promote the savage fury of Tsurugi. It's also a popular notion that Sonny Chiba was technically lacking in grace in his onscreen martial arts fighting movements in comparison to other silver screen fighters. Again, THE STREETFIGHTER is the template by which everything Chiba has done is essentially judged. The man was certainly graceful in his films, but Tsurugi was not supposed to be the Karate version of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. He was supposed to be rough and straightforwardly brutal. The character of Chieko in KARATE WARRIORS is frequently graceful pulling off moves that look far more attractive than those delivered by the lumbering, if entirely precise Tsurugi the caveman.

The YOJIMBO connection is a lone stranger who ends up in the middle of a gang war between two brothers. Chieko feigns seeking work between the two ultimately creating more violence in the process all the while scheming with his own ulterior motives. Meanwhile, a mysterious and predominantly silent samurai named Mizuki works for one of the factions while his sad son tags along. This is where the Itto Ogami accent is inserted from Toho's hugely popular LONE WOLF & CUB series but it, too, is presented with some additional twists. So many of Chiba's movies feature children in some sort of subplot even though the violence level and sexual situations are at odds with the familial nature of the child interactions. For this film, the plotline with the little boy is integral to the success of the picture and by the end, the sorrow entrenched plight of the child will temper even the most hardened soul.

The two characters of Chieko and Mizuki offer a strikingly alluring dichotomy between the past and the present. Mizuki wanders the streets decked out in traditional samurai garb. Although his enactment of Bushido is a bit skewed, he still fights honorably with his sword. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Chieko is a fighter who is skilled in the sword, but prefers his fists and feet. A few times during the film, Chieko is seen delivering a sword strike followed by an offensive maneuver with his body such as a kick or a punch. It's this marriage of the past and present that enables Chieko to have the upper hand against the samurai upon their fated duelling date. Both respect each other highly, but both have their own agendas that will bring them to eventual battle.

Isao Natsuyagi had been in movies since the original 13 ASSASSINS from 1963. He made his mark in two B/W Chambara pictures from Hideo Gosha, SAMURAI WOLF 1 and 2 from 1965 and 1966. He, like Chiba, has a great deal of onscreen charisma. This magnetism served Natsuyagi extremely well in his other movies especially in a grand showing from the ambitious box office success that was the peculiar TIME SLIP from 1979 also starring Sonny Chiba. For his role as the quiet samurai of this modern day Karate film, Natsuyagi is more methodical and barely showing any emotion in his face. He's not the least bit brazen as some of his other roles engender. His duel with Chiba in a cemetery is a high point and choreographed in traditional Chambara style only the Japan of the 1970s sits in for the period Japanese settings of the Feudal Era.

The marriage of period samurai tales and modern Yakuza action is displayed in other ways throughout the movie, too. Some of the dusty, desolate and windswept locations and even Iga's sleazy night club where Chieko first meets them has amenities that recall the saloons of the old west such as the same type of swinging door. The one thing lacking, though, is a sheriff. In fact, the police element is predominantly absent here. It's the one major flaw that keeps the film firmly planted in comic book territory. You could make the argument that the cops are paid off, but we never see this. The strength of the dramatic portions of the picture are palpable enough to supersede the minor shortcomings.

Not only is there the blood feud between two brothers, but there's also a minor subplot of clashing lifestyles between two sisters, Yumi and Genko. Yumi is a nurse struggling to make a living while her sister is a prostitute who jumps ship from one boat to the other depending on how sturdy the hull is. Flip flopping between gangsters (and Chieko, too) she's used and abused all the while hiding her own agenda. She's the more interesting of the two in that we learn she has used her body to help get her sister on her feet and pay her way through school. This is just one of several cogs in this scripted wheel that paints a different picture of what is perceived as lower level society.

The other subplot, and the one that gets the most mileage, concerns Nanu, the little boy. His father, Mizuki seems to have no time for him from being busy as a sword for hire with Nishi's gang. Nanu's numerous scenes with Chieko quickly takes on a father-son relationship. Chieko helps the boy learn fishing, protects him and consoles him after witnessing the child being tormented by other school kids. Later in the film, Nanu is put in harms way and is injured. Chieko gives his blood for a transfusion to save the childs life. Afterward, this is the first time Mizuki steps in as a father figure to his unanimously unloved son. He tells Nanu what Chieko had done and that he should "never forget his generosity" and also speaks what we the audience already know--that the two will eventually have to fight each other.

And when the two warriors do finally meet at sixty minutes into the movie, you'd think this was supposed to be the big finish. Debts are paid and services rendered, but it's a false finish! Koreko and some of his men bust out of prison and seek to take back their syndicate. It's here that the movie is at its most manga with this colorfully decorated group of villains that would fit right in among the post apocalyptic wasteland. The remaining thirty minutes is more or less KARATE WARRIORS-CHAPTER 2 with the main plot now resolved, a new one takes its place and soon Chieko's true inner humanity takes hold.

With Chieko now in possession of the coveted heroin stash, Koreko's men are sent after him. While aboard a train enroute to find Nanu's mother, Chieko befriends a prisoner, handcuffed to a detective. The chained man, in a moment of bravery, saves Nanu from being thrown from the train. It's yet another instance where the script champions criminals, or those of a less than respectable nature showing us they're not necessarily as bad as we may think they are. It would seem the goal Tatsuhiko Kamoi's script is to show us that not every crook is what they seem; that even the most ignominious soul retains the capacity for love and compassion. This fascinating viewpoint collides with the wholesome novelty of the family unit.

Upon meeting Mizuki's ex wife who is now remarried and has a new son, Chieko explains the situation. Amazingly, she rejects her first born citing, "I only know my boy here. I can't accept that other one now!" We never learn exactly why Mizuki and his wife split apart whether due to infidelity or due to him becoming embroiled in underworld activities. The sadness of the whole thing is that Nanu was led to believe that his mother had been dead all that time and now that he's been brought to her, she doesn't want him. Her disownership seems involuntary, but it's a powerful scene upon putting everything in perspective. This child had essentially no father to bring him up, no friends and was regularly tormented by his classmates as well as being nearly killed by gangsters and assassins. Throughout all this, the kid was tossed around like a rag doll to evade death and now upon finding his mother whom he thought had died, she wishes to have absolutely nothing to do with him. Thankfully, both Nanu and Chieko gain some much deserved redemption by the final scene.

While the camerawork isn't as chaotic as it is in other Yamaguchi movies, the use of slow motion and experimentation with various speeds enhance the already superlative and creatively choreographed fight sequences. The use of this intriguing editing technique would crop up in many more Sonny Chiba movies and others featuring members of his JAC organization. The score isn't as memorable as some other Chiba pictures, but there's a couple funkadelic cues that occasionally pull us out of the seriousness of the film and hands us a bucket of butter soaked popcorn to savor during the moments of escapist entertainment. KARATE WARRIORS has that and more. If you're new to the man called Sonny Chiba, THE STREETFIGHTER (1974) is the most popular place to start, but this complex Karate & the Kid picture is an accomplished alternative.

This review is representative of the BCI double feature DVD paired with DRAGON PRINCESS


Fazeo said...

Great review, and a classic Chiba film.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I've only seen Streetfighter and Kill Bill so I guess I'm in diapers when it comes to Mr. Chiba, but as always, I guess I've found the right place to find info on his films, thanks for this review dude. It seems he was trying to play a "nicer" character than the one he played in Streetfighter where he was kind of ruthless.

venoms5 said...

@ Fazeo: Thanks, man, and yes, it's a Chiba classic! Here's hoping the Japanese version gets a release at some point.

@ Fran: Hey, Fran, thanks for the kind words! Speaking of STREETFIGHTER, over the course of that films two sequels, they did some tinkering with the character and by the third, Tsurugi was pretty much a goonish thug. I'd love to see his most famous show, KEY HUNTER get a subbed edition released legit on the market.

Fazeo said...

Ditto on hoping there is a Key Hunter DVD someday. Would love to see that show.

venoms5 said...

I wouldn't doubt it if there weren't already some fan subbed episodes out there in collector land somewhere.

Ty said...

Great write-up! Loved Karate Warriors! Sonny Chiba was at his best and the beach fight was very well-done.

venoms5 said...

One of my fave Chiba movies, Ty. Hopefully, a nice wide Japanese version will surface at some point. I had planned on more Chiba reviews, but figured I'd give him a break and spread them out a bit.

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