Archive for the ‘Martial Arts’ Category

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Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 2)

September 17, 2014

Sonny Chiba Festival Day 1: June 14th (Part 2: The Films)

From here on it’s going to be film mini-reviews all the way. The films screened during the first day were The Executioner 2: Karate Inferno and G.I. Samurai. Neither one of them was quite the typical Chiba film.

The Executioner 2: Karate Inferno (Chokugeki jigoku-ken: Dai-gyakuten) (Teruo Ishii, 1974)

Karate Inferno is best described as an act of terrorism. Director Teruo Ishii was never keen on making karate movies, but the studio had him direct one with The Executioner (1974). The mismatch resulted in an exceptionally sleazy action fest that was probably more enjoyable than Ishii ever intended it to be. To his shock, it was a commercial success and Toei had him direct a sequel, which Ishii turned into a madcap comedy (there was a similar case with biker gang movies only one year later, when Toei had Ishii direct a sequel for Detonation: Violent Violent Riders, and Ishii turned it into a love story with musical scenes).

Karate Inferno is essentially a comedic caper in which the same gang we know from the original film are supposed to save a kidnapping victim, but when the deal goes bad they decide to rob their employer instead. Most of the film consists of Chiba (asshole ninja), Makoto Sato (asshole ex-cop) and Eiji Go (asshole pervert) taking the piss and molesting Yutaka Nakajima while also planning a big diamond heist. In the film’s highlight we see Chiba saving his pall, whose jacket was caught on fire, by pissing on him!

The jokes are crude but funny, the soundtrack is fantastic, and there’s some great action at the end of the film. The Japanese audience had a blast, even clapping hands during the film in a couple of highlights, which is extremely rare in Japan. Many of the jokes are film references, though, and may not be understood by most foreign viewers (e.g. Kanjuro Arashi appearing as the same character he plays in Ishii’s Abashiri Prison series – Chiba also appeared in the 4th and 6th film).

G.I. Samurai (Sengoku jieitai) (Kosei Saito, 1979)

G.I. Samurai is a very different type of film compared to Karate Inferno. This big budget action fantasy stars Chiba as an army commander whose platoon somehow gets thrown back in time to the 1600s. Luckily for them, all their weapons, equipment, and vehicles (including helicopter and a tank) come with them. The heavy artillery comes in need when they get involved in a clan war between two historical figures: Nagao Kagetora (Isao Natsuyagi) and Shingen Takeda. It’s time to show the samurai what a modern man is made of!

While G.I. Samurai doesn’t have the kick of Chiba’s best movies, it’s nevertheless full of major action scenes, huge body count, historical characters in entirely fictional situations, and more serious themes about masculine desire for power and domination.

There’s a lot that springs from the 1970’s exploitation film mentality, but at the same time the film also showcases a new era in Japanese filmmaking. The film was produced by Kadokawa, who was a new player in the filmmaking biz. Up till late 1970s Chiba had been working for Toei, who mass produced cheap genre films at rapid pace. Kadokawa, however, were making modern Hollywood-like productions. Their films were often accompanied by theme songs, novels and other supporting products. The amount of money invested in G.I. Samurai – ¥ 1,350,000,000 – would probably have financed a dozen Street Fighter flicks. Also look for numerous cameos, like Hiroyuki Sanada climbing to a helicopter, and the soon-to-be super-idol Hiroko Yakushimaru as a child warrior.


 

Sonny Chiba Festival Day 2: June 15th

The Escape (Niniroku jiken: dasshutsu) (Tsuneo Kobayashi, 1962)

The first film for Sunday night was the rarely seen The Escape. This was one of the many Japanese films based on the infamous February 26th Incident that took place in 1936. The incident involved army rebel forces attempting a coup d’état in Tokyo. The rebels opposed to Japan’s modern policies and believed that the Emperor had been misled by politicians. To restore Japan’s past glory they gathered hundreds of men and attempted multiple simultaneous political assassinations. One of their attacks was the raid on the prime minister’s house. Nearly 300 rebels took part in it; however, the prime minister managed to hide and eventually escape.

The film focuses on the military police’s (partly fictionalized, no doubt) attempts to rescue the minister before the rebels find out he is still alive. He manages to hide in a closet because the enemy mistakes a dead body that greatly resembles him as him. The military police now tries to get him out without the rebels realizing what’s going on. It’s a mostly dialogue driven affair with exciting action in the beginning and end of the film. Sonny Chiba plays only a small supporting role as a soldier who discovers the prime minister’s hiding place, but agrees to help the military police. The real star of the film is Ken Takakura. An entertaining military / caper mix, but not a classic film.

 

Bodyguard Kiba (Ryuichi Takamori, 1973)

The 1973 action thriller Bodyguard Kiba is one of Chiba’s weaker efforts. The film stars Chiba as a Japanese karate fighter taking on the mafia, all in the name of promoting karate. It’s a pretty messy storyline that nevertheless allows for some memorable ultra-violence and enjoyable spaghetti western influences. Action scenes are, however, sloppily filmed.

One of the film’s biggest merits may actually be featuring the 16 year old Etsuko Shihomi as a stunt double for Yayoi Watanabe (who plays Chiba’s sister). In the superior sequel, Bodyguard Kiba 2 (1973) Shihomi inherited the role, which marked her first acting role in a movie. Another thing worth mentioning is that the film is based on the manga Bodyguard Kiba, which was influenced by Chiba’s real life master Masutatsu Oyama. Although names have been changed, when Chiba’s character speaks of his master in the film, he is actually referring to Oyama and his real life adventures. Oyama also makes a cameo during the opening credits.

Bodyguard Kiba is better known in its international form under the title The Bodyguard (1976). The American version changes the storyline somewhat, with almost all karate philosophy and Oyama references removed. In that version Chiba is simply fighting crime when not filming movies (yes, he actually plays himself in the US version!). In the Japanese version Chiba’s character actually comes out as a bigger asshole, not least because of the new ending scene where he seems to have forgotten about all the casualties and tells the press how this whole massacre was great advertisement for karate. The US version is missing the ending scene.

There are, however, some highly amusing added scenes in the US version. These include the famous Ezekiel speech that Quentin Tarantino quoted in Pulp Fiction, US martial artists Aaron Banks and Bill Louie discussing who’s a tougher guy: Sonny Chiba or Bruce Lee, and a modified opening credits sequence accompanied by Viva! Chiba! Viva! Chiba! chanting.

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Sonny Chiba A Go Go

September 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.

Return of the Street Fighter (1974), Karate Bullfighter (1975), Karate Warriors (1976)

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.

Bodyguard Kiba (1973) (top) and Yakuza Deka: Poison Gas Affair (1971) (bottom)

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.

Samurai Reincarnation (1981)

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)

Karate Warriors (1976) (left) and Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (1975)

Karate Bullfighter (1975)

Karate for Life (1977)

Message from Space (1978)

Bullet Train (1975)

Bullet Train (1975)

Top Middle: Bodyguard Kiba (1973) and The Escape (1962)

Two posters for The Fall of Ako Clan Castle

Hepcat in the Funky Hat (1961) and Army Intelligence 33

Memoir of Japanese Assassins (1969), Karate Warriors (1976) and Message from Space (1978)

Memoir of Japanese Assassins (1969), Karate Bullfighter (1975) and Jail Breakers (1976)

Okinawa Yakuza War (1976) and Okinawa 10 Year War (1978)

Kamikaze Man (1966) and Okinawa 10 Year War (1978)

Bullet Train (1975) and Jail Breakers (1976)

G.I. Samurai (1979)

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High Kick Angels

June 17, 2014

New low for schoolgirl karate – but with one highlight!

High Kick Angels (2014)

Martials arts fanatic and school girl lover Fuyuhiko Nishi has been working hard in the recent years combining the two into action entertainment. High Kick Girl (2009) launched Rina Takeda’s career despite not being all that solid of a film, and K.G. (2011) continued on the same path with more success and unintentional amusement. Now the school girls have been officially promoted as angels – unfortunately the film is no heaven.

The storyline, written by Nishi and brought to screen by Kazuhiro Yokoyama, is about a bunch on high school girls (Kanon Miyahara, Mayu Kawamoto, Nagashima Hirona, Kaede Aono, Risako Ito) filming their own martial arts movie in an empty school building. Then all of a sudden a group of bad guys appear, looking for money hidden in the building, and not quite expecting the corridors to be filled with karate-skilled school girls. The girls decide to fight their way out and film it.

First things first: Mayu Kawamoto! Remember that name. This 20 year old Kyokushin karate black belt (the world’s toughest karate variation, and Sonny Chiba’s primary art) is great. It was her promo videos released prior to the film that were the most impressive, and she does the same in the film. Her fights are real action goodness: attacks, blocks, counter-moves, dodges, fast moving; in other words, intelligent, interactive and exiting fighting! It’s a shame she’s not the main character, but a supporting one.

Then comes the bad, which is practically everything else. The story is dull beyond belief. The music is horrible. The directing and almost all of the acting is incredibly childish and over-done, especially by the adult villains (Chisato Morishita, Shingo Koyasu). It’s hard to say who are more irritating: the girls imitating Bruce Lee’s battle cries (+ borrowing looks and lines from Hiroko Yakushimaru and Meiko Kaji) or the adults sporting the corniest possible villain looks. Kanon Miyahara and Kaede Ayano are the top billed school girls, and while both surely have some ability, most of their action looks way too much like a kicking demonstrations: the bad guys wait in line to be kicked or hit, and never even try to block.

As wonderful as Mayu Kawamoto is, it’s hard to recommend the entire 90 minute film just for her. High Kick Angels has none of the slick (and partly unintentional) amusement of K.G, and it’s not even on par with High Kick Girl. It might work as a children’s movie, but that’s it. Wait for DVD and fast forward to Kawamoto’s scenes is the best that can be said about it.

As a side note, it must be said it’s amusing the school girls are now officially referred as angels. Yet, the film is about as unexploitative on the subject as it can be, even if it still probably makes some of the more insecure Western viewers feel uncomfortable.

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Sengoku Bloody Agent

March 28, 2013

Sloppy action fest would do better in rental markets

Sengoku Bloody Agent (2012)

Kung fu vs. sword. Tonfa vs. knife. Japanese sword vs. Chinese sword. 2013 already saw one excellent mixture of martial arts in Takanori Tsujimoto’s Bushido Man. Bruce Lee fanatic Naoki Takeda attempts a somewhat similar concept in his own film. The difference between the two action films is that while Bushido Man starred martial arts expert Mitsuki Koga, Sengoku Bloody Agent stars former bikini model Ayumi Kinoshita. That, unfortunately, is just about all that needs to be said about Sengoku Bloody Agent.

Takeda, who was one of the crew members bringing Bruce Lee’s original Game of Death footage back to life in Bruce Lee in G.O.D. (2000), has been making career in action films ever since. Sengoku Bloody Agent throws a bunch of rogue fighters, motivated by random childhood traumas, against the yakuza. Action is plentiful and shot without CGI or wires, but any inspiration is utterly lacking and the casting is wrong to begin with.

Sengoku Bloody Agent is a typical direct-to-video style action film with slightly higher production values. Storyline and characters are non-existent, and action fills the majority of the running time. Style and punch is lacking. The characters are played by a mixture of idols and b-movie actors. The outcome is like a bad episode in the TV series Alias, and should mainly please the fans of Kinoshita.

Supporting roles offer a couple of competent faces, mainly yakuza film regular Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi. Otherwise the only source of amusement is the closing credits. The ending suggest of a sequel, perhaps a series of them, though that would depend entirely on the film’s performance in rental stores. In cinema environment it’s hard to imagine much success of Sengoku Bloody Agent, when even good action films struggle to find audience at the Japanese box office.

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Bushido Man

March 5, 2013

An old fashioned fighting movie to delight genre fans

Bushido Man (2013)

It’s been ages since Japan produced anything as manly as Bushido Man. Seven warriors, seven battles! There’s almost nothing else to be found in the film. The casting alone is ace. Mitsuki Koga (Evil Ninja, 2010), Masanori Mimoto (Alien vs. Ninja, 2010), Kensuke Sonomura (Hard Revenge Milly), Kazuki Tsujimoto (Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle)… Nothing but martial artists, stuntmen, action directors and yakuza film b-actors! Pretty face idols that have been terrorizing Japanese action cinema since the 80’s are nowhere to be found!

Violence director Takanori Tsujimoto has established his name as the most promising talent in his field. Tsujimoto’s early shorts lefts something to be desired, but his Hard Revenge Milly: Bloody Battle holds as the most intense Japanese action film of the 2000’s so far. Bushido Man sparked interest ever since the clever advertising campaign, which revealed Koga’s opponents one by one in teaser posters released during a 6 month time span.

In Bushido Man Tsujimoto tones down the violence in favor of martial arts. The concept is like an amusing variation of the Shaw Brothers film Heroes of the East. The protagonist (Mitsuki Koga) pilgrims around Japan looking for masters of martial arts to challenge. In each fight he has to adapt a new fighting style or weapon. The opponents are kung fu master, stick fighter, nunchaku expert, blind samurai, knife specialist, revolver man, and a woman with special weapon. In preparation the hero always heads to a restaurant first. “Learn about your opponent through his diet”.

Today’s Japan is an extremely difficult environment for action filmmakers. The genre simply doesn’t have domestic demand. In Bushido Man the budget has been cut down to the minimum. The cheap visuals look, where especially outdoor scenes tend to look less than natural, is not much to write home about. Thankfully the rest of the film turns out pure 1980’s madcap Hong Kong action. The opening fight alone, in which Koga meets the film’s action choreographer Kensuke Sonomura, is among the best hand-to-hand battles seen in Japanese cinema.

A lot has been invested in the amount of fights. Well over half of the running time is spent fighting. The rest of the time Koga wanders around Japan looking for opponents and eating their favorite foods. The fun concept freshens the movie, though feels slightly underutilized. A few additional scenes would not have hurt. Even then, Bushido Man took more days to shoot than most other Japanese genre films of recent, and the production was delayed by more than half a year.

The philosophical aspects of bushido are brought up both between and during the fights. The self obvious wisdoms and old fashioned gentleman gestures are heartwarming, even if decidedly silly. After each fight the protagonist develops as a fighter and a human being, and learns from the opponent’s strengths. Such moments, as well as the sheer amount of fighting, make Bushido Man feel like an old fashioned martial arts movie in the best way.

Towards the end the film loses its track a bit. Metaphysical references and scenes of comedy are more embarrassing than clever. The fighting spirit of the first half suffers a bit, and action choreography takes a few steps back with more emphasis on firearms. Even then, the final fight reaches such levels of pure, again 80’s Hong Kong style, madness, that entertainment is guaranteed.

Despite a few flaws during the second half, Bushido Man is easily one of the best attempts in Japanese martial arts cinema in ages. In a time when bikini models and pop stars dominate most of the genre, a mentally insane fight circus such as Bushido Man is welcomed with open arms. Japan’s most famous active screen fighter Tak Sakaguchi would better come up with new tricks as Koga just stole the game!