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.