Sonny Chiba A Go GoSeptember 16, 2014
Sonny Chiba A Go Go
Cinema Vera, Tokyo
June 14th – July 11
Although 2014 has been a fantastic year for film retrospectives in Tokyo (such as Art Theatre Guild and Norifumi Suzuki retrospectives), the highlight of the summer was no doubt Sonny Chiba film festival which played in Shibuya’s Cinema Vera. Cinema Vera had dedicated Chiba a 24 film retrospective which covered the first three decades of his career.
During the festival Cinema Vera played nothing but Chiba films for four weeks straight. Each day two films were screened back to back all day from 11 am to around 11 pm. Each of the films would also play again on a later date in case you missed the first day, meaning each film would have a total of 7- 10 screenings. All movies played from original 35mm prints, except for the TV production Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (1980), which screened from the original 16mm film.
The festival programme included not only popular classics like The Street Fighter (1974), but also rare gems like the superb action/noir Army Intelligence 33 (1968) and Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975), which is probably Chiba’s best and most outrageous movie of all time (I watched it three times during the same day!). The selection demonstrated the diversity of Chiba’s career, which started already in the early 1960’s, and included not only action and martial arts films, but also samurai films, war movies, crime films and many other genres. In fact, as an actor Chiba might have been at his best in the early 1960’s when he played mainly good guy roles and demonstrated some amazing energy.
The theatre in which the films screened, Cinema Vera, focuses on film retrospectives (past series include Teruo Ishii, Masao Adachi, Yasuharu Hasebe and Noboru Nakamura). One of the coolest aspects is that they always do fantastic job decorating the lobby with original posters from the movies. Every week there were new posters on display, including Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975), Karate Bullfighter (1975), Message from Space (1978), Okinawa 10 Year War (1978), Samurai Reincarnation (1981) and many more.
The real highlight of the festival was, of course, Chiba himself. The 75 year old actor attended the festival during its first day in the afternoon. Some fans had arrived three screenings in advance. This meant that they would be watching G.I. Samurai – one of the two films screening that day – twice just to keep their seat. That’s possible since the theatre is not emptied between the screenings. Once you’re in, you’re expected to watch two films and leave, but no one’s going to kick you out if you stayed longer.
I went in two screenings in advance, and by that time it was already challenging to get a good seat. When Chiba walked on stage, every single seat (144) was taken and additional people were sitting on the floor. The wait was well worth it. The legendary action star is 75 years old now, but he’s still full of energy and acts like 15 years younger than his age. During the 40 minute talk event Chiba recalled his career and joked about how in the early 1960’s Ken Takakura, Koji Tsuruta and Tetsuro Tanba were always the producers’ first choice to any Toei film, and he could only get the role when they were busy. Chiba also regretted the state of modern Japanese action cinema that relies too much on CGI, unlike back in his days when they did real action.
Chiba knew what he was talking about. He made his first martial arts films in the early 1960’s, established his own film school Japan Action Club to train physically capable action stars such as Hiroyuki Sanada and Etsuko Shihomi, and was even a well known star in Hong Kong due to his TV show Key Hunter (1967-1972). Both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan were impressed by Chiba, the latter especially. Jackie was such a big fan of Chiba that he even travelled to Japan to meet him – and of course repeated and improved upon many of his stunts (e.g. the helicopter scene from the 1976 film Jail Breakers, which Jackie managed to beat in Police Story 3 in 1993).
Chiba was also a real life martial arts master who practiced Kyokushin Karate under its founder Masutatsu Oyama since the late 1950’s. Chiba fought in Oyama’s team in the international fighting tournament in Hawaii in 1977, where Chiba defeated the former east coast champion Greg Kauffman with a knock-out in the second round. Chiba also acquired black belts in more than half dozen martial arts, including Kyokushin Karate, Ninjutsu, and Shorinji Kempo.
In addition, Chiba was never just an action star or martial artists. His rich career, especially in the 1960’s, features comedies, dramas, war films, science fiction, noir, crime movies and super hero flicks. In some respects, he was at his best as an actor in the 1960’s when he was bursting with youthful energy and charm and often played good hearted heroes. During the 1960’s alone, Chiba appeared in more than 60 movies, many of them starring roles. These roles were quite different from the 1970’s action movies that his international fans best know him for.
None of those accomplishments reflected in his behaviour at the Chiba festival. After the talk event Chiba answered questions in a Q&A (sometimes spending more time asking his fans questions and opinions than talking about himself) and greeted fans after the event in the theatre lobby. I’m glad to report Chiba was an absolute gentleman without a smallest sign of arrogance. He talked with fans, asked for their opinions, gave autographs, and took photos with them. My best memory is probably how (after already having asked Chiba a question during the Q&A and taken a photo with him) he came to me on his way out, shook hands and thanked me for coming to the event. All in all, the man came out as a very modest, polite and energetic gentleman.
I was also glad to see the festival was obviously a success. Although old school theatres are closing one after another these days Chiba festival seemed to attract many people. A lot of people showed up and there were many viewers even during weekday mornings. I spent a total of 10 days (three extended weekends) at the festival and caught 20 of the 24 films that played. I’ll be reporting day by day, although the report may change its form a little bit as it goes on.
List of Films Screened at the Festival:
Hepcat in the Funky Hat (Kinji Fukasaku, 1961)
The Escape (Niniroku Jiken Dasshutsu) (Tsuneo Kobayashi, 1962)
Gambler Tales of Hasshu: A Man’s Pledge (Masahiro Makino, 1963)
Abashiri Prison 4: Northern Seacost Story (Teruo Ishii, 1965)
Kamikaze Man: Duel at Noon (Kinji Fukasaku, 1966)
Game of Chance (Samurai’s Lullaby) (Ryuchi Takamori, 1966)
Army Intelligence 33 (Tsuneo Kobayashi, 1968)
Memoir of Japanese Assassins (Sadao Nakajima, 1969)
Bodyguard Kiba (Ryuichi Takamori, 1973)
The Street Fighter (Shigero Ozawa, 1974)
The Executioner 2: Karate Inferno (Teruo Ishii, 1974)
Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1975)
Bullet Train (Junya Sato, 1975)
Karate Bullfighter (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1975)
Karate Warriors (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1976)
Jail Breakers (Dasso Yugi) (Kosaku Yamashita, 1976)
Okinawa Yakuza War (Sadao Nakajima, 1976)
Karate for Life (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1977)
Message From Space (Kinji Fukasaku, 1978)
Okinawa 10 Year War (Akinori Matsuo, 1978)
Swords of Vengeance (Kinji Fukasaku, 1978)
G.I. Samurai (Kôsei Saitô, 1979)
Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (Kiyoshi Nishimura, 1980)
Samurai Reincarnation (Kinji Fukasaku, 1981)