Archive for the ‘Cult & Exploit. (vint.)’ Category

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Sonny Chiba Reviews

April 6, 2017

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:

https://sketchesofchiba.wordpress.com/

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Crest of the Wolf

April 6, 2017

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.

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Minato no Yoko, Yohohama, Yokosuka

April 2, 2017

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.

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Black Panther Bitch M

April 2, 2017

Black Panther Bitch M (Kuroi mehyo M) (1974)

Reiko Ike stars in this Nikkatsu produced action film, which came out just the right time. Toei’s Pinky Violence genre was starting to wane out while karate films were the new thing. Black Panther Bitch M was a bit of both. The film hit the screens two weeks before Toei’s Sister Street Fighter opened.

Ike is a ninja trained assassin ordered by an invisible shadow organization to take out businessman Mikio Narita, who is protected by yakuza goons. Limited production values and some slow patches set this apart from Toei’s best action films, but there also are some atmospheric parts and nice bits of ultra violence as Ike takes out her opponents using knives and sadistic martial arts moves. Ike was no karate pro, but stunt doubles and fun ideas like POV action compensated enough. Ike also looks absolutely gorgeous in her frequently malfunctioning blouse that clearly wasn’t intended to be used while engaging in hand-to-hand battle.

Supporting cast is mostly Toei actors, including karate master Masashi Ishibashi, who has one fight scene in the film, and who also brought his acquaintance Gogen Yamaguchin in as martial arts advisor. Director Koretsugu Kurahara was one of Nikkatsu’s rising action film talents from before the studio shifted to Roman Porno. Even during the Roman Porno period his films were often influenced by action movies (e.g. Sex Rider: Wet Highway, 1972). Bad Girl Mako (1971) and Black Panther Bitch M are his only mainstream action films.

There is a fun story in the dvd booklet about Ike’s involvement in the production. One reason why she accepted Nikkatsu’s offer  was that she was getting a little bit tired for her “sex queen” image at Toei, and was promised that this would be a mainstream film with no sex scenes in it. Ike later found out the filmmakers had added a hotel room sex scene into the screenplay, and she got majorly upset. She had them rewrite the scene (into a non-sex nude scene) and relocate it to a “safer location” on a rooftop

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A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse

April 2, 2017

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse (Bakeneko Toruko furo) (1975)

Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (Sister Street Fighter, Delinquent Girl Boss) was widely considered one of the least talented Toei directors of his time. He’s been ridiculed by critics, audiences and theatres alike. When Laputa Asagaya ran a retrospective of Yamaguchi’s films in Tokyo in 2015, the catch copy was “Message? Theme? What are those?”  Yet, the man helmed some of the most outrageous films of the 70s. Here is one of them, a 1975 cursed cat erotic horror flick loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe!

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse stars Nikkatsu starlet Naomi Tani as an abused wife sold to a brothel to cover her husband’s (Hideo Murota) debts. The deceitful husband is actually behind it all, and in cahoots with the brothel owner who is his lover. Tani discovers the truth and gets whipped to death (terribly ironic considering she survived all her Roman Porno SM flicks alive). However, the dead woman’s soul won’t overlook the injustice.

If that sounded like a spoiler, I’ve only described the film’s beginning. Once Tani is out of the picture, the character’s less charismatic younger sister (Misa Ohara) enters the storyline. She will be the film’s focus from here on, although there’s less fun to be had about her detective story than Hideo Murota occasional sleaze bag antics.

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse is a real Frankenstein job. Masahiro Kakefuda (Horrors of Malformed Men, 1969) and Nobuaki Nakajima’s (Tokyo Deep Throat, 1975) script steals ideas from Poe’s The Black Cat. The film takes place in a Turkish Bathhouse, a popular topic for Toei’s erotic films and documentaries at the time. The bathhouse, populated by bare breasted girls, doesn’t look too different from the Shogun’s palace seen in Teruo Ishii and Norifumi Suzuki’s films. Star Naomi Tani was of course borrowed from Nikkatsu and together with her came the SM film elements.

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse also launched director Yamaguchi’s unrelated series of animal themed films. In this film Tani’s vengeful soul finds a new body in a black cat that begins terrorizing the evil doers. Yamaguchi later directed Karate Bull Fighter (1975), Karate Bear Fighter (1975), Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975), and Which is Stronger: Karate or the Tiger (1976), all of which were martial arts films where man fought the fore-mentioned beasts. Bizarrely awesome.

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse is at its best, and weakest, in the long finale where the vengeful cat flies around slaughtering her enemies and eventually turns into a runway cast member of the Cats musical. It’s all positively insane, but any real horror is long gone by this point. The poor cat, which is being thrown around the room by the crew, doesn’t look even remotely menacing. The ending also pales in comparison to Yamaguchi’s later movie Wolfguy, which was even more insane and benefitted from a better technical execution. Indeed, despite being a movie of different genre, A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse feels something of a dress rehearsal for Wolfguy, only with less violence and no karate.

A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse  is 90 minutes of boobs, violence, supernatural horror that isn’t scary, funky score, occasional apocalyptic sunsets, and bloody cat attacks. It’s a fun film and never boring, but it isn’t quite as far-out as one would wish, especially when compared to the amazing Wolfguy. Consider it Yamaguchi’s House-lite, Toei Porno style.

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The Big Gamblers of the Amazon

August 23, 2015

The Big Gamblers of the Amazon (Amazon mushuku: Seiki no daimaoh) (1961)

New York, 1961. A worldwide gambling committee gathers. The industry is in recession. Japan is seen as the most promising new market. Enter Amazon Kenji (Chiezo Kataoka), a homeless gunman and master gambler (mostly because he cheats) from the jungle, wearing poncho and a huge Mexican hat, who introduces himself by shooting a cigar from a random guy’s hand. He’s going to be the first one to sink his teeth in the new market. But before he gets there, but he’s joined by an Americanized bastard Gold Rush Kumakichi and Jack the Ace, the son of a Japanese geisha on Paris. Once in Japan, the trio is hired by a Chinese gambling lord who is also running a drug business.

This is an insane action comedy gem by Shigero Ozawa, the director of The Street Fighter (1974). It’s also a fascinating mix of new and old; the type of colourful film sets and costumes from Toei’s lavish Kyoto productions combined with mad energy that was running wild at Toei’s contemporary Tokyo studios. The film also includes strong western influences and a climatic shoot out where the hero guns down at least 60 bad guys. It only makes sense that halfway into the storyline the protagonist is actually locked up in a mental hospital. It is a little bit bizarre to see veteran actor Kataoka, who starred in countless samurai films since the 1920s, in such a madcap role.

For a film packed with foreign supporting characters (most of whom get killed in the final shoot-out) it’s of course a bit ridiculous that everyone is speaking Japanese! The film fully acknowledges this and even makes fun of it. In one of the better jokes we have French characters, who were speaking nothing but Japanese until then, suddenly switch to French language to plot a sneaky plan. When the French speaking Jack the Ace overhears them, one of the French characters shouts out “dammit, he understood us” – in Japanese! And this is how the language switches back to Japanese.

It’s a shame this film has never been released on DVD anywhere in the world. I was lucky enough to catch it in 35mm in a Toei Tokyo retrospective in Tokyo. Amazon Kenji is a lost 1960s cult hero waiting to be discovered by the world! A sequel, in which Kataoka stars as a homeless gambler from The Himalayas, was released later in 1961. Apparently the sequel also contains a yeti!

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Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 6)

September 20, 2014

Sonny Chiba Festival Day 6: July 3rd (Thursday)

It had been almost two weeks since my last visit to Tokyo. I missed the screenings of Gambler Tales of Hasshu: A Man’s Pledge (1963), Karate Warriors (1975), Swords of Vengeance (1978) and Message from Space (1978). The rest of the screenings during my absence were second or third screening days for films I had already caught before.

This day did not start so well. I did all I could to be there on time, including taking an early flight to a closer airport than usual. Little by little everything started to fall apart. First, the flight was 20 minutes late. Next, there was no rapid train from the airport for whatever reason. Finally, when I got to Tokyo there had been a train accident, which resulted in about a 20 minute delay. The 45 minutes of extra time I had scheduled for getting from the airport to the theatre eventually shrank to 14 seconds! Yes, after defying death by running through Shibuya like a crazy person, and silently cursing everyone on my way down to hell, I got there 14 second before the film started and spent the opening credits trying to catch my breath.

Abashiri Prison: Northern Seacoast Story (Abashiri bangaichi: Hokkai hen) (Teruo Ishii, 1965)

The film I successfully caught was the 4th film in the long running Abashiri Prison series (1965-1972), which cemented Ken Takakura’s status as the most popular Japanese actor of the 1960s. The series started in 1965 with the original classic, which saw Takakura as a tough guy sent to the Abashiri Prison. It wasn’t necessarily the greatest movie ever made, but it brought together many of Toei’s best yakuza film actors and benefitted from the snowy landscapes of Hokkaido. As the series advanced, many of the sequels departed from the original setting and didn’t necessarily even include prison scenes. Northern Seacoast Story brought the series back to the Abashiri setting after a couple of entries set in warmer locations.

Northern Seacoast Story stars Takakura in his usual tough guy role. The film takes a while to kick off because it dedicates most of the opening act for tiresome comedy routines about two gay inmates. Things get more exiting once Takakura is set free and he takes a job to drive a certain truck through Hokkaido. This is when the film becomes a variation of the John Ford classic Stagecoach (1939), with Takakura’s truck packing an unusual cargo: a runaway teenager (Reiko Ohara), a mother accompanied by sick child, and two ruthless criminals (Tooru Abe and Takashi Fujiki).

There are few surprises to be encountered, but the presence of ever reliable genre actors, winter landscapes, and groovy jazz score make it a passable time waster. Sonny Chiba appears in a pretty small supporting role as an inmate with health problems. His character actually kicks off the storyline, however, he is only seen in the early scenes. Chiba later returned for another supporting role in the 6th film: Duel in the South (1966), which was a slightly bigger part, but nevertheless quite forgettable.


The Street Fighter (Gekitotsu: Satsujin ken) (Shigero Ozawa, 1974)

This was the film that started the golden age of Japanese karate entertainment. Two important factors should be considered when we discuss the film: timing and talent. Although Chiba had been making action movies since the early 1960s, including a couple of full-fledged martial arts films, Japanese karate films had never really taken off. For years Chiba had to deal with producers and directors who had little interest in the fighting aspect. Matters were made even worse by tight filming schedules. Things finally begun to change Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon was released in Japanese theatres in December 1973 and proved a major hit. All of a sudden there was a genuine demand for martial arts films. The producers naturally went for Chiba. The Street Fighter was Toei’s response to Lee’s success, produced at lightning fast schedule to hit the theatres less than two months after Enter the Dragon.

The timing was perfect also because the other vital requisite for a good martial arts movie, the necessary action talent, had just been discovered a few months earlier. Chiba’s earlier action films had suffered from the lack physically capable supporting actors who could make good opponents for Chiba. Most of Toei’s action film stars were yakuza film actors who looked fine with a gun or sword, but made pretty poor karate fighters. This finally changed when Chiba discovered Masashi Ishibashi, who was cast as a villain in Chiba’s previous movie Bodyguard Kiba 2 (1973). Ishibashi was a real life karate master and Chiba’s senior, who had been acting in movies for a good while already but hadn’t done much on-screen action before. With Ishibashi on board Chiba had finally found an actor who could keep up with the choreographies even when films had to be completed at lighting fast pace.

The action scenes in The Street Fighter were co-designed by Chiba and Ishibashi, who played the film’s famous villain and returned for countless other Chiba films like Karate Bullfighter. There were other real life martial artists involved as well, like Masafumi Suzuki, who plays the martial arts master Chiba challenges in the dojo scene. Chiba’s brother Jiro, who later went on to star in The Defensive Power of Aikido (1975), and Chiba’s protégé Etsuko Shihomi, who would become the biggest Japanese female martial arts star of all time, were also featured in minor roles.

The Street Fighter also became an unforgettable showcase of Chiba’s anti-hero charm and ultra-violence. Chiba was given relatively free hands at creating the main character, who was a badass mercenary called Takuma Tsurugi. Chiba drew influences from the psychotic yakuza villain he had played in Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza film Deadly Battle in Hiroshima (1973), but made the character a little les evil this time round. What resulted was 90 minutes of cinematic badassness that remains one of the most enjoyable action films of the 1970s.

For better or worse, The Street Fighter has characterized Chiba’s reputation since then and made him a cult hero all around the world. However, his best work as an on-screen martial artist was still to come. The Street Fighter was still a contemporary action film where, for the most part, gunplay had merely been replaced with martial arts. It wasn’t until the next year when Chiba’s martial movies found their purest form in films like The Killing Machine, Karate Bearfighter and The Defensive Power of Aikido, all of which were biopics of real life martial artists.

As a side note, there is some confusion regarding Chiba’s side-kick character calling him “darling” throughout the film in the Japanese language version. This is quite amusing indeed, especially considering he even cooks Chiba’s meals, however, it’s a misunderstanding. The word is not “darling”, it’s “talen” which is Chinese for “master”. This makes perfect sense since the character is supposed to be Chinese or Singaporean, whose life was saved by Chiba. The Japanese mispronunciation of the term has, however, even fooled Japanese audiences.

The evening was characterized by beaten up prints. Abashiri Prison had essentially turned into a “pink film” if you know what I mean. The Street Fighter, too, had little of the original colours remaining, and frames were missing in several points throughout the film. In fact, the famous bit of ultra-violence where Chiba sticks his fingers into the opponent’s eyes was completely missing due to print damage. Even in this condition the film still kicked major ass and it was a pleasure seeing it on 35mm. Although these two prints were in poor condition, most of the films at the festival screened from very good, sometimes near-pristine prints.