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.