Friday, September 12, 2014

The Killing Machine (1975) review



Sonny Chiba (Doshin So), Makoto Sato (Otaki Kentaro), Yutaka Nakajima (Kiku Sakamoto), Makoto Naoya (Hiroshi Tomoda), Etsuko Shihomi (Miho), Kyoichi Sato (Kaga), Tetsuro Tamba (Police Chief Nobuyuki), Rikiya Yasuoka (Takehara), Kinji Takinami (Akamatsu)

Directed by Norifumi Suzuki

The Short Version: Bone-breaker extraordinaire Sonny Chiba returns to the screen essaying the real life martial artist, Doshin So, the founder of Shorinji Kempo. There's elements of Master So in this film, but sensationalism dominates; especially in the last 40 minutes. Suzuki tries to take things seriously most of the time, but the urge for breaking arms, geysers of blood, and scissoring off a rapists penis for a hungry dog is just too much to resist. Arguably one of the Bad Man From Japan's bests movies, it sits stoically alongside other brute-tastic, body mangling movies like THE STREET FIGHTER (1974) and THE EXECUTIONER (1974).

After Japan surrenders in 1945, Doshin So, an undercover agent behind enemy lines in China, goes back home to Osaka. Upon arriving there, he rescues a young lady sold into prostitution by a Yakuza gang, and takes in a band of orphaned children. Running into trouble with some American GI's, Master So cripples two of the MP's and is arrested. The Japanese chief of police is sympathetic to the martial arts master, and allows him to leave quietly. Leaving for Shikoku, Doshin So sets up a martial arts school, and soon runs into the same Yakuza mobsters from Osaka. Along with corrupt lawmen, the mob begin taking lands for their own use, and So's school is highly prized by them. A violent war between Doshin and his students versus the gangsters litters the landscape with blood and broken bones.

So far the only movie based -- as loose as it is -- on the life of Nakano Michiomi, later to be known as Doshin So (or Kaiso, 'the founder'), the man who brought Shaolin martial arts to Japan. Filmed in cooperation with Japan's Shorinji Kempo Federation, Isao Matsumoto's script inserts small chunks of the real Master So's experiences, using these bits and pieces to build the action portions of the story around them. These autobiographical moments are gotten out of the way rather quickly so as to make room for three sub-plots that are all connected to Chiba's character. Throughout the picture, Doshin So acts as a problem solving Karate savant; a martial arts Moses, if you will. These three arcs are modestly peppered with violent interactions with the villains who will feature heavily in the last half of the picture when the exploitation portions of the film set in. 

Taking place during a three year period in Master So's life (1945-1948), the film begins at the end of WW2, and So's job as a military intelligence agent is done after Japan's surrender. Returning to his homeland, he sees a devastated, demoralized Japan. He then makes it his mission to aid in rebuilding Japan by rebuilding the crushed spirits of its citizens. He founds Shorinji Kempo in 1947; and that's the extent of the historical connections. There's also a brief flashback to So's childhood when he visits his mother's grave. As for accounts on the real man himself....

According to sources, Michiomi enlisted in the military at 17, and eventually found himself stationed in Manchuria as a secret agent. It was also during this time he became heavily influenced by Chinese martial arts, particularly the kung fu styles of Shaolin. Taught an array of locks, grappling, and throwing techniques (which makes up a lot of the martial arts seen in the film), Michiomi learned faster than the average student. His master, Wen Tai Zhong made him his successor, granting Michiomi the title of Grandmaster; and changing his name to Doshin So (Religious Servant of the Way). He returned to Japan and began his efforts of reinvigorating the Japanese by reaching out to, and eventually training the youth of the day.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Doshin So the man was his abandoning of ideological, religious, and political polarities in favor of individual qualities of a person; pushing his students to do their best, and find the confidence within themselves to re-establish their sense of purpose and self-worth; this, too, is touched on in the movie on a handful of occasions; particularly when he is forced to get physical with the now one-armed Tomoda (one of the three dramatic arcs presented in the film). Drunk and wishing to die, Master So throws him out into the rain and begins wailing on him, tossing him around like a rag doll to try and anger Tomoda to the point he'll realize he can't let his crippling injury allow him to give up.

Racism is an issue that's espoused upon; it's not a subject the script dwells on, but it makes its presence known a few times. There's disdain from the Japanese towards the Americans, and an even more palpable sense of prejudice from the Japanese towards the Korean population residing there. This discrimination is the catalyst for two of the three expositional branches Suzuki's movie uses to tell its story.

For example, Otaki Kentaro (frequent Chiba co-star, Makoto Sato) returns home from the way only to find his wife has remarried, and to a Korean. Thinking he was killed in battle, he's stunned at his wife's admission; and upon discovering she has a son now, he's even more devastated. Things get no better when Otaki learns the son is actually his. Instead of breaking up this new family, Otaki decides to go his separate way. He contemplates suicide till his friend Doshin convinces him otherwise.

Known for his sleazy pinky violence movies, and artistically unsavory films along the lines of SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST (1974), Norifumi Suzuki mixes Karate action with heavy doses of drama in SHORINJI KEMPO. It's an unusual pairing that periodically mimics the outrageous antics seen in Shigehiro Ozawa's THE STREET FIGHTER (1974) the year prior. However, Suzuki's film enters Ozawa's nihilistic arena in a big way after the 50 minute mark -- highlighted by one sequence in which Master So punishes a Yakuza for raping a young girl. He pulls out a pair of scissors and severs the man's penis! Tossing the sausage to the ground, the meat attracts the attention of a dog who then makes a meal out of the malcontent's member. 

The Doshin So of Suzuki's film, and of Chiba's portrayal likewise mirrors THE STREET FIGHTER's Tokuma Tsurugi's penchant for bone breaking. Director Suzuki tries to one-up his colleague by having Chiba bend, twist, and contort his victims limbs till they no longer resemble functioning appendages. In addition to all the crushed bones and fractured ribs, there's a gory dismemberment with a LONE WOLF level of arterial spray.

The real Doshin So worked with lead star Sonny Chiba in preparation for shooting this picture. The martial arts may be there, but the movie was the opposite of So's teachings. A disclaimer at the beginning somewhat confirms this; but then an ending title card tries to justify all the onscreen brutality with a Blaise Pascal quote, "Justice without force is powerless; force without justice is violence". The quote is applicable to this movie, only it's fickle about being a serious story, and one riddled with violence and Karate fights. The films American release as THE KILLING MACHINE only pushed the movie further away from the philosophical underpinnings of Shorinji Kempo, and reinforced the action and brutality quotient stamped into the film like a hellfire missile of Chiba combos.

Regarding the violence, much of it is foisted upon Sonny Chiba and those close to him in this, one of his best movies. Playing a man prone to passivity, the Cheebster keeps that patently mean visage in check, evoking just enough intense vexation to know that he's bringing the pain, and someone else will be feeling it. He actually gets to emote a bit, and expand on his range as an actor for this sort of picture. Chiba would star in a similar movie released in August of that year, KARATE BULL FIGHTER; a film based on the life of his martial arts teacher, Masutatsu Oyama. It was the first of a trilogy. Coming on the heels of his iconic THE STREET FIGHTER (1974) and the similar THE EXECUTIONER (1974), SHORINJI KEMPO was released in February of 1975. It was one of nine(!) movies the actor appeared in that year.
This was Suzuki's first outing with the martial arts superstar. Six years later, he'd be working with JAC again with the wild SHOGUN'S NINJA (1980), the modern day bizarro martial arts actioner ROARING FIRE (1981), and KAGEMARU, THE NINJA (1983), a live-action adaptation of the anime IGANO KAGEMARU. 

Composer Shunsuke Kikuchi's riffs have that standard Chiba sound to them like many of the actors other Karate pictures around this time. Kikuchi composed some of those too, like KARATE BULL FIGHTER (1975). There's nothing remarkable about the SHORINJI KEMPO score, but the cues suffice in their usage. One of the best pieces is the wa-wa guitar heard in the finale. Kikuchi was incredibly prolific -- to  a degree that might make Morricone blush. Just some of the man's genre works include the music and theme song for many of the KAMEN RIDER series', IRON KING, and the MESSAGE FROM SPACE television series; his movie work includes GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL (1968), the last four Showa Gamera films from GUIRON onward, and the SISTER STREET FIGHTER (1974) film series.

SHORINJI KEMPO is sometimes lost in the shuffle, or on down the list when Chiba's available filmography is discussed; this is unfortunate as it's one of the man's bests pictures. It features some of Chiba's best martial arts sequences displaying a level of control that was vastly different from his more famous roles as the STREET FIGHTER Tokuma Tsurugi and Koga of the two EXECUTIONER movies. It's another martial arts film, but the character Chiba plays is multi-layered; something he hadn't played yet in these pictures up to this point. While many would immediately recommend THE STREET FIGHTER, this pseudo-biographical actioner is an engaging introduction to The Killing Machine, Sonny Chiba.  

This review is representative of the BCI/Ronin Blu-ray.
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