A bit of self-promotion here. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m also running a Sonny Chiba review blog called Sketches of Chiba with tons of reviews of classics as well as very rare films and TV shows. The blog can be found here:
Monster Woman ’88 (Youjo densetsu ’88) (1988)
Roman Porno director Noboru Tanaka’s last movie is a trendy mainstream fantasy / mystery / love story with video game programmers as its main characters! A dead woman begins communicating with a young video game programmer via his computer. What’s going on? This is one of those movies that keep your interest from beginning to end without ever being especially good. It’s strictly a mainstream affair without any exploitation, but the programmer angle is pretty cool indeed. There’s also an amusing otaku love story side plot with the guys hiring a pretty girl despite her complete lack of programming skills. They hired her mainly because of her large breasts.
Crest of the Wolf (Ookami no monsho) (1973)
This was the first of the two live action films based on Kazumasa Hirai’s Wolfguy manga franchise. There were two Wolfguy mangas being published simultaneously: “Wolfguy” and “Adult Wolfguy”, aimed at youth and adult readers respectively. This movie, produced by Toho, was based on the former, which followed its werewolf hero as a bullied high school boy. It’s a quite an imaginative and often atmospheric, if sometimes cheesy story that suffers from a couple of slow patches despite the wonderfully short 77 minute running time. Young Yusaku Matsuda does his feature film debut as a villain.
Although the source material was aimed at younger readers, the films is quite bloody and features copious amounts of nudity, especially by the hero’s kind teacher (Yoko Ichiji). As enjoyable as it is, the film pales in comparison to the incredible Toei adaptation Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975), which was based on the “Adult Wolfguy” manga and upped the sex and violence to a whole new level.
Karate Wars (Karate daisenso) (1978)
One of the few Japanese karate films made by some other studio than Toei, in this case, Shochiku. The film’s production background is actually more interesting than the movie itself. The film was produced by Ikki Kajiwara, the author of the comic books Karate Kiba and Karate for Life, which Toei had made into feature films with Sonny Chiba. It was intended as a starring project for Kajiwara’s brother Hisao Maki, who was a student of Masutatsu Oyama. The film failed to make Maki a star (for very obvious reasons) but he would later contribute to cinema as a screenwriter and novelist (e.g. Takashi Miike’s Big Bang Love, Juvenile A)
The film was shot in Japan, Hong Kong and Thailand, utilizing many local martial artists. It’s also spoken in various languages, including Japanese, English, Chinese and Thai. Unfortunately it’s a pretty poor film with an unremarkable storyline about a Japanese martial artist (Maki) who convinced to travel to Hong Kong and Thailand where he fights local fighters. It takes about half an hour before anything happens, but once the film moves to foreign locations it picks up some pace and remains watchable enough thanks to a steady delivery of action. Most of the fights happen when Maki is ambushed time after another on the streets.
Maki is amusingly wooden in the lead role, especially as an actor. His fights suffer from the (modern) Steven Seagal syndrome where he barely needs to do anything but walk around and the opponents drop dead. Although there is certain realism to the fight moves, he looks surprisingly slow compared to the likes of Sonny Chiba. While martial arts aficionados may get something out of it, the film is solely lacking in the fun department.
The film was set for a R1 DVD release a decade ago but the company went bankrupt before the disc came out. Shochiku released the film on DVD in Japan (without subs) a few years ago. The original trailer on the disc calls the movie “The 3rd film in the Chijo saikyo no karate (The Strongest Karate) series”. That’s a little confusing since the first two are documentary films, and this is a work of fiction. Also, the title of Karate Wars (Karate daisenso) makes no reference to the Chijo saikyo no karate series. I think the ad team probably came up with that connection just to sell the film. I don’t think anyone actually considers it a part of the series.
Himalayan Wanderer (Himalaya no mushuku: Shinzo yaburi no yaro domo) (1961)
A very loose sequel to the wonderfully nutty The Big Gamblers of The Amazon. Unfortunately this one is not half as much fun. It has the same lead cast, including Chiezo Kataoka, but that’s where the similarities end. In this film Kataoka (not a gambler this time) finds a yeti in the Himalaya and brings him to Japan. Not much interesting happens since bringing a yeti out to the public is no easy task and we end up spending too much time with a fake-yeti (Eitaro Shindo). Reporters and gangster businessmen alike are after the real yeti, who spends most of his time sleeping in Kataoka’s bathtub. A poor man’s King Kong with a lot of filler material between the relatively good opening and closing parts.
Africa’s Light (Africa no hikari) (1975)
This a bit of a slow burner for nothing much happens in the film. However, you’ll be surprised by how it grows on you. The film is about two semi-slackers (Kenichi Hasegawa and Kunie Tanaka) with an ultra-intimate friendship (wait for the scene where sick Tanaka pees in his pants, and Hasegawa then dries him with a towel) working, slacking and drinking in a freezing Hokkaido town. For a modern comparison point, imagine an early 2000s Nobuhiro Yamashita film with less humour and more 70s grit. Cinematography by Shinsaku Himeda is solid, and the film’s minimal score is quite lovely. The film was a Toho production, one of the many mainstream films by Roman Porno master Tatsumi Kumashiro. His other mainstream film, Failed Youth (1974), is often considered one of the best Japanese films of all time.
Minato no Yoko, Yohohama, Yokosuka (1975)
This crazy disco dance youth film plays out like a Japanese Saturday Night Fever with a murder suspect plot. A young girl (16 year old Ai Saotome) is looking for her runaway sister (Yumi Takigawa) and ends up finding new life at a night club. Expect psychedelic discos, dance-till-you-drop (literally) all night dance marathon competitions and Downtown Boogie Woogie Band, whose awesome song gave the film its title and plot, and who appear in the ultra-funky intro scene. What a discovery! It’s a shame this has never been released on video or dvd.