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Sonny Chiba Festival Day 7: July 4th (Friday)
Memoir of Japanese Assassins (Nihon ansatsu hiroku) (Sadao Nakajima, 1969)
Sadao Nakajima was one of Toei’s seminal genre film directors. He worked in almost any genre that was popular at the time, and delivered competent films that ranged from ninja adventures to sexploitation and yakuza movies. He had, however, also an urge to deliver something more ambitious, as evidenced by his surprising 1973 visit to Art Theatre Guild where he directed the gangster drama Aesthetics of a Bullet. Memoir of Japanese Assassins is another odd beast is his filmography. This all star political slaughter fest chronicles murders committed by assassins in different eras, all based on reality. Stars like Ken Takakura, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Bunta Sugawara pop up for their 5 minute episodes only to cut someone’s head off, stab someone to death or blow someone into pieces with a hand grenade.
The seemingly endless cavalcade of ultra-violent kills finally comes to an end about 25 minutes into the film. This is when the film finds its main story: an impressive tale of a young man slowly transforming into a political assassin. Sonny Chiba portrays this character; a youngster living in the middle of never ending poverty and misery. He eventually finds new home with a revolutionary group, which begins his long road to becoming a political assassin. This episode takes no less than 90 minutes of the film’s 142 minute running time, features almost no action or bloodshed, and gives Chiba more screen time than all the other stars combined.
Chiba is quite good in the leading role, despite slightly overdoing his most emotional scenes. He actually won an acting award for his performance at the Kyoto Citizen Film Festival (Kyoto shimin eiga sai), where Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri was also awarded the same year. Yakuza film queen Junko Fuji also appears in a seminal supporting role in this episode. Once their story concludes, the film still continues with two more short episodes (one of them featuring stock footage from the earlier Chiba film The Escape, 1962). As a whole the film is a bit uneven, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating and occasionally epic (partly thanks to composer Isao Tomita, whose score plays on repeat) movie. Easily recommended!
Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (Kiyoshi Nishimura, 1980)
The second film for Friday was a real rarity: the 1980 special effects extravaganza Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (literally Tokyo Great Earthquake Magnitude 8.1). This generously budgeted TV film premiered on Nihon TV in 1980, and completely disappeared from the face of earth until it was screened in a special event in Tokyo last year. That screening was reportedly so popular that only a fraction of the willing customers were able to obtain a ticket. Cinema Vera gave the film no less than three screening days, during which it was seen from a relatively worn out 16 mm print, which would of course be the original format.
As the title suggests, it’s a disaster movie based on the premise of a giant earthquake hitting in Tokyo. This fear stems from real life: Tokyo has been destroyed by earthquakes several times, most recently in 1923 when more than 140 000 people died and over 400 000 buildings were destroyed. When it comes to Japanese cinema the genre may not seen very common – a couple of exceptions aside there aren’t many Japanese disaster movies – however, it closely relates to monster movies and other tokusatsu epics that have long traditions in Japan. It was a short way from giant monsters stamping Tokyo to a natural disasters creating similar cinematic destruction.
Indeed, a couple of shots in Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 seem so familiar that they just might be old Godzilla sets put into new use. That wouldn’t be surprising considering many of the filmmakers, including producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and special effects director Koichi Kawakita, and co-production company Toho, had their background in Godzilla films. The fine, even if obvious, miniature work is actually the best thing about the film. There are a couple of especially memorable scenes, like a passenger plane flying over Tokyo that has turned into a giant inferno, and dawn in the destroyed metropolis.
As a character drama Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 falls flat. All the usual clichés from helpless grandmother to dumb children and even animals escaping at the wrong moment are included, not to mention characters discussing how terrible it would be if an earthquake hit Tokyo just a few hours before it really happens. That is quite disappointing considering the film was directed by Kiyoshi Nishimura, who had helmed interesting thrillers and existential action films like The Creature Called Man (1970) and Hairpin Circus (1972) for Toho in the 1970s. Perhaps he just couldn’t help the screenplay.
Sonny Chiba plays the starring role; however, he doesn’t have much else to do than run back and forth in the special effects shots, and worry about supporting characters constantly getting in trouble. It’s not an especially physical role since most of the effects are make-believe. His most memorable scene involves blowing up a door while taking cover inside a safe. Yutaka Nakajima, who appeared in some earlier Chiba films like The Executioner (1974), plays the female lead, but her role is very forgettable as well. There are a few other supporting actors as well, but amusingly a great lack of extras. It seems the entire budget went to special effects since there are only a handful of people in Tokyo and they miraculously run into each other throughout the film.
Because of its rarity Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 will remain to be sought after movie. It’s a decent special effects show that probably deserves to be seen by genre fans, especially for its nostalgia value, but it’s hardly a great movie. For fans of Chiba it’s passable viewing, but not among his most memorable roles.
As a side note; the film’s budget was 150 million yen, which was five times higher than the episode budget for the famous cop-action series Seibu Keisatsu (which is still fondly remembered for its insane action scenes full of car wrecking and explosions) that was screening on TV around the same time. By the 1980s many of the former actions stars, like Yujiro Ishihara, Tetsuya Watari, and Chiba himself were mostly working on TV. Chiba had already starred in hundred of TV episodes in various different shows since the 1960s, like Key Hunter (1967-1973) and The Bodyguard (1974). In the 1980s television became his primary employer as well. It was a great era of epic small screen action entertainment that often rivalled, and sometimes surpassed, the theatrical films. Nothing like it exists on Japanese TV anymore.
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.
Sonny Chiba Festival Day 5: June 22nd (Sunday)
Game of Chance (aka Samurai’s Lullaby) (Rokyoku komori-uta) (Ryuichi Takamori, 1966)
In the 1960s ninkyo yakuza films became Toei’s most successful genre. These old school yakuza films inspected the themes of honour, loyalty and brotherhood in a historical setting. The heroes in these films may have been yakuza, but they were honourable men who followed the codes of honour and never exploited the innocent. These movies would usually start with the hero arriving to a town where a good gang he belongs to is being pitched against a dishonourable gang that exploits the innocent. There would also be a seminal supporting character that the hero meets and becomes friends. We would later discover that that man is actually working for the enemy, but only because of some kind of blood relation or obligation that he cannot escape. The film’s climax would see the two men forces, and the supporting character redeeming himself with a heroic death.
There are a couple of different variations of this ninkyo formula, but the basics remain the same: honourable men put in difficult situations where obligations, personal feelings and the morals would conflict. The genre was a huge hit among the audiences and made actors like Ken Takakura and Koji Tsuruta the biggest stars of their time. It was therefore no surprise that Toei also had Sonny Chiba star in a couple of old school yakuza films, although he never became a star in the genre. Game of Chance is an interesting off-note ninkyo yakuza film in which Chiba stars as a swindler who has to escape with his 5 year son (Hiroyuki Sanada in his first role) after being caught cheating in a card game.
Game of Change is an odd film because it’s constructed very much like the typical Toei ninkyo film except that the protagonist commits some slightly dishonourable acts you wouldn’t usually see in the genre. In fact, the hero in Game of Chance is very much like the seminal supporting character in numerous other Toei ninkyo films. It’s also an unusual film because of its heavy dosing of family drama, which gives the typically very masculine genre a feminine spin. These elements make it an interesting movie, although it never really finds the perfect alignment nor perfects its art. Some of this may be actually because of the utterly mediocre director Ryuichi Takamori not knowing what he was doing. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining yakuza drama with only a few minor action scenes. It was followed by two sequels, both starring Chiba, and shot in colour, unlike the first film which is black and white.
Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (Wolfguy: Moero ôkami-otoko) (Kuzuhiko Yamaguchi, 1975)
This incredibly entertaining action film stars Sonny Chiba as a karate skilled crime reporter who also happens to be a werewolf. He keeps his true nature hidden from the mortal world and lives among normal people as one them. As the film opens, he begins investigating a series of ultra-brutal murders in which members of a rock band have been slaughtered by a woman with supernatural powers. Her skills are demonstrated in the opening scene, in which one of the rockers (Rikiya Yasuoka) bumps into Chiba’s car and pretty much explodes into pieces a moment later on a side alley.
Wolfguy just may be the most outrageous Sonny Chiba ever made! The film goes from psychedelic city noir to science fiction set in mysterious research labs, and eventually mythical action as Wolfguy returns to his birthplace in the mountains. It’s packed with unbelievable scenarios such as werewolf vs. werewolf karate fight, werewolf shooting people with machine gun and Chiba pulling off the prison bars with his bare hands. The film also features ultra-gory murders straight out of a splatter movie, super funky soundtrack, great action, frequent female nudity, and odd mother syndrome with Chiba rubbing his nose between pinky violence star Yayoi Watanabe’s breasts because she resembles him of his mother!
What is most surprising about Wolfguy is how it makes shockingly much sense structure-wise. Unlike many other Chiba films where the main difference between the beginning and ending was the number of opponents, Wolfguy really comes a long way storywise. It also manages to retain a sufficient level of continuity, despite being a combination of several ‘Adult Wolfguy’ graphic novels by Kazumasa Hirai. Hirai also published the similarly titled but more youthful ‘Wolfguy’ manga that Toho had already adapted into a film in 1973, but Toei wanted to fill their movie with non-stop sex and violence so they went for the adult version.
The film was expertly handled by director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (Sister Street Fighter, Karate Bearfighter). The shaky cam style that hurt some of his other movies is virtually absent here, resulting in several excellent action scenes that vary from martial arts to gunplay. There’s even a tank in one scene, though it never enters the frame! Overall Wolfguy is one of those rare cult movies that not only live up to their outrageous premise, but exceed it. The fact that there is no DVD or even video release anywhere in the world is a crime against humanity!
It says something about the film that I watched it three times during the same day. It was the first film I saw that day, followed by Game of Chance, after which I simply decided not to give away my seat. After the insanely enjoyable second viewing I initially left the theatre and headed for Laputa Asagaya for Co-ed Report: Yuko’s White Breasts (1971), but it turned out the screening was sold out and I couldn’t get a ticket. With nothing better to do I went back to Cinema Vera for one more go at Wolfguy, and I didn’t regret one bit!
Wolfguy was certainly a hit with the audience. In the last screening one poor Japanese fella became mentally insane! He sit quiet during the film, but as soon as the film ended he burst into uncontrollable laughter and couldn’t stop. He left the theatre laughing like a madman. His maniac laughter echoed in the theatre for several minutes, essentially turning the whole place into a madhouse. The film’s greatness must have been too much for him to handle.
This was the end of my second Tokyo stay, but I was only halfway through the festival. Stay tuned for more reviews!
Sonny Chiba Festival Day 4: June 21st (Saturday)
Saturday. Back in Tokyo after a few days of normal life. The festival kept running meanwhile, but I didn’t miss any movies because those were second or third screening days for films I had already seen during my last stint. My original plan was to land in Tokyo and first catch a couple of films in Jinbocho Theater before heading to Cinema Vera for only one Chiba film, but I ended up changing my plan and watching both of the evening’s Chibas.
Bullet Train (Shinkansen daibakuha) (Junya Sato, 1975)
My decision was a good one. Though I had seen Bullet Train – Junya Sato’s predecessor to Speed (1994) – before, I didn’t recall it being this good. The excellent thriller stars Ken Takakura as a criminal whose gang plants a bomb on a bullet train and demands money from the government. If the speed falls below 80km / hour, the train will explode. The police do their best to track down the criminals without giving in to their demands, while the desperate train pilot (Sonny Chiba in a rare 1970’s non-action role) is trying to keep his cool. Tension begins to rise among passengers as the train skips its designated stops.
Sato was a solid director who was usually more interested in storylines than exploitation (there are some exceptions, though). Here he does fine job helming a character and story driven thriller, even if there are a couple of silly turns and too many flashbacks used as storytelling device. The film’s biggest merit is its well crafted villains, whose acts are understandable though not acceptable. Takakura does excellent job making his character human, and becomes the film’s central character despite being the villain. Action scenes are few, but expertly executed. The ultra-funky 1970s score feels out of place at first, but eventually becomes a seminal part of the film and makes one wish all good movies had one like this. Supporting roles feature a whole variety of stars from Takashi Shimura to Etsuko Shihomi and Yumi Takigaw, sometimes only getting a few seconds of screen time.
Hepcat in the Funky Hat (Funky Hat no kaidanji) (Kinji Fukasaku, 1961)
The evening’s second movie was one of Chiba’s very first starring roles: Hepcat in the Funky Hat. This energetic little movie was the third collaboration between Chiba and director Kinji Fukasaku. The two had already made two Drifting Detective movies together, the first one being Fukasaku’s directorial debut and Chiba’s first starring role. Fukasaku and Chiba then went on to work together a total of 20 times. When Chiba made his own directorial debut with Yellow Fangs (1990) Fukasaku served as his advisor.
Chiba plays a happy-go-lucky son of a detective, who constantly manages to get himself in the middle of someone else’s trouble, but comes out saving the day. Chiba is full of youthful energy, does some athletics, tries to charm the ladies (without much luck), and kicks a little bit of ass. Some of his goofier acts resemble Hong Kong stars like Alexander Fu Sheng in their more comedic roles in the 1970’s – whether that’s a good thing or not is debatable.
Hepcat in the Funky Hat also showcases the madcap energy Fukasaku later become famous for. The cinematography is wild and innovative, edits come fast and dialogue is delivered at lightning pace. There’s a striking difference between this and some other detective films of the same era, like the Police Department Story films in which Chiba co-starred the same year, or even Fukasaku’s own Drifting Detective films. Hepcat in the Funky Hat runs less than an hour and was originally played as a b-feature for a bigger budgeted a-film, but would probably have been at least 20 minutes longer in the hand of any other director.
In addition, the film deals with the theme Fukasaku explored throughout his career: youth vs. older generations. Having lived through the horrors of war and having felt betrayed by the nation and the older generations, this theme got increasingly violent cinematic incarnations in Fukasaku’s later classics like Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972), Battles without Honour and Humanity (1973) and Battle Royale (2000), where army, yakuza and the government respectively took to roles of rotten authorities. Hepcat in the Funky Hat, however, is a celebration of youthful energy, passion, and early 1960’s youth culture. Its young heroes leave the old men eating dust at every turn!
Sonny Chiba Festival Day 3: June 16th (Monday)
Army Intelligence 33 (Rikugun choho 33) (Tsuneo Kobayashi, 1968)
This criminally neglected mixture of spy-noir and commando action by director Tsuneo Kobayashi (The Escape, 1962) is a lost gem. The film’s storyline is loosely based on the Nakano Spy School which operated in Tokyo during the Second World War. It was officially focused on correspondence, but in reality trained top spies for the government.
Chiba portrays a promising young soldier who is kidnapped and forced to become a spy. After receiving tough training (martial arts, weapons, explosives, foreign languages) by none other than Tetsuro Tanba, he is sent for his first mission, which is to gather secret information from a foreign ambassador. This is when the film takes a turn to a wonderful noir with gorgeous cinematography, great old fashioned score and terrific atmosphere. Chiba himself looks fabulous as a spy in long dark coat and black hat which immediately bring American noir stars like Humphrey Bogart to mind. This is probably something many foreign fans never expected to find in Chiba’s filmography.
Army Intelligence 33 isn’t entirely a spy noir, though. The final act sees Chiba sent for a Lee Marvin style commando mission to South East Asia together with his partner in crime Kenji Imai. The action packed final third can’t quite compare with the wonderful noir section, but it’s a tremendously entertaining climax nevertheless.
The only weakness is occasional lazy screenwriting throughout the film, which has us believe that these kidnapped young men would barely protest their destiny, and the enemy soldiers whose behaviour isn’t always all that logical. This is however a small gripe in a hugely entertaining film. Chiba later returned to the same training camp in another Nakano Spy School influenced film: Military Spy School (Junya Sato, 1974). That film, however, couldn’t compare with the far more elegant and entertaining Army Intelligence 33, which remains one of Chiba’s best movies.
Jail Breakers (The Escape Game) (Dasso yugi) (Kosaku Yamashita 1976)
Jail Breakers, or The Escape Game (literal translation) is another rarely seen movie that has probably never been released outside Japan. It hasn’t been preserved so well in its native country either; no DVD release available and even the festival print was in such a shape that it could have fallen apart any time. The caper-style movie stars Chiba as the worst behaving prisoner of all time: he has 31 prison escapes under his belt.
Chiba makes his 32nd run in the film’s opening scene by performing a spectacular escape by climbing to the roof, grabbing to ladders from a helicopter, hanging from the ladders in in the air while the helicopter makes its way through the countryside, and changes his clothes in the mid-air before dropping to a moving truck and making the escape by then jumping to another moving vehicle – one of the many stunts on Chiba’s career that his greatest fan, Jackie Chan, later improved upon (Police Story 3, 1992).
The film is packed with nice stunts throughout, but the screenplay could be better. After escaping the prison Chiba teams up with a bunch of thugs, who design prison escapes for money. Unfortunately trust and loyalty are unknown concepts to these men who take turns deceiving each other. The endless “who’s-cheating-who” game has been done better in other films, and sometimes the writing is downright sloppy: when a carefully planned escape operation fails, Chiba simply steals a fire engine and drives away without anyone noticing!
It also feels that director Kosaku Yamashita, who made his name with yakuza films, was a bit out of his element here. However, even with these weaknesses it’s an entertaining action comedy which compares favourably against some of the later, similar Yasaku Matsuda films like Execution Game (1978) and No Grave for Us (1979). It’s also essentially a family friendly affair with no sex whatsoever, and only minimal violence. The focus is on stunts and comedy.