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Takuma

Sonny Chiba Mega Review Thread

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19 minutes ago, Fist of the Heavenly Sky said:

Apologies in advance to @Takumaif t looks like I'm co-opting his thread. I had this review wrapped up for a while and this is about the only thread where it's fitting to post.

Killing Machine/Shorinji Kempo (Japan, 1975) 

 

Not at all. I'm very happy to see others contributing as well. This thread is open to everyone.

Great review btw. :BL-Exclamation:

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6 minutes ago, Takuma said:

Not at all. I'm very happy to see others contributing as well. This thread is open to everyone.

Great review btw. :BL-Exclamation:

*nods* Glad to hear. Anything about the review that you agree/disagree with, anything to add and such? I'm interested in hearing your thoughts. I might cook up another review for this thread, this time for Karate Bullfighter.

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20 hours ago, Fist of the Heavenly Sky said:

*nods* Glad to hear. Anything about the review that you agree/disagree with, anything to add and such? I'm interested in hearing your thoughts. I might cook up another review for this thread, this time for Karate Bullfighter.

I don't have much to add because I pretty much agree with everything you said. The lack of a strong villain was indeed a common problem with many Toei martial arts films. They didn't seem to have many qualified martial arts villains aside Masashi Ishibashi, and often went for some yakuza film veteran (Asao Koike, Bin Amatsu, Hideo Murota etc.) instead.

While Killing Machine lacks a big man vs. man finale, I think storywise it's one of Chiba's best martial arts films. Although a bit sentimental, the storyline is quite well handled. There's the kind of continuity, meaningfulness and epicness that makes it worthwhile, especially when you have plenty of action accompanying it. In contrast, while the Oyama films are a ton of fun, they suffer from fragmented/episodic storylines. Sometimes (in Bearfighter especially) you feel they could play the reels in the wrong order and the audience wouldn't notice...

Suzuki had that kind of skill... the ability to seamlessly move from exploitation or low brow comedy to drama and back. The Truck Yaro series is one of the best examples. He could also be a bit lazy, which is why he didn't always utilize that skill even though he clearly had it.

You mentioned that the film does not come off as nationalistic. That made me think that distrust (and often ridiculing) of authorities was actually a common theme in Norifumi Suzuki's films. Whether it was the police (Truck Yaro), teachers (Terrifying Girls' High School), or the head of a nunnery (School of the Holy Beast) they always turned out rotten. I'm not sure Suzuki was trying to make any specific statement with Killing Machine, but it does sort of line up with the rest of his films. He always seemed like a director who'd side with the individual against the system.

Oh and yes please, more reviews would be welcome.

Edited by Takuma

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7 hours ago, Takuma said:

While Killing Machine lacks a big man vs. man finale, I think storywise it's one of Chiba's best martial arts films. Although a bit sentimental, the storyline is quite well handled. There's the kind of continuity, meaningfulness and epicness that makes it worthwhile, especially when you have plenty of action accompanying it. In contrast, while the Oyama films are a ton of fun, they suffer from fragmented/episodic storylines. Sometimes (in Bearfighter especially) you feel they could play the reels in the wrong order and the audience wouldn't notice...

You mentioned that the film does not come off as nationalistic. That made me think that distrust (and often ridiculing) of authorities was actually a common theme in Norifumi Suzuki's films. Whether it was the police (Truck Yaro), teachers (Terrifying Girls' High School), or the head of a nunnery (School of the Holy Beast) they always turned out rotten. I'm not sure Suzuki was trying to make any specific statement with Killing Machine, but it does sort of line up with the rest of his films. He always seemed like a director who'd side with the individual against the system.

Ooooo boy, I have quite a bit to riff about Karate Bullfighter, both in terms of analysis and production. I find it irking how insanely inconsistent the storyline is. I haven't had the chance to check the other Oyama movies, but I suspect they did nothing to fix the issues the first movie had.

Killing Machine did indeed pack a lot when it came to individualism. While Nakano Michiomi himself is the symbol of a country's determination to push through and come out even stronger on the other side, he does not make it his sole driving trait. He wants others to carve their own destiny in spite of the harsh conditions of their surroundings.

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3 hours ago, Fist of the Heavenly Sky said:

Ooooo boy, I have quite a bit to riff about Karate Bullfighter, both in terms of analysis and production. I took find it irking how insanely inconsistent the storyline is. I haven't had the chance to check the other Oyama movies, but I suspect they did nothing to fix the issues the first movie had.

They were all based on a manga, so I guess they were trying to cram in the best bits from various stories. The 1st film feels like it's made of episodes, while the second film feels like it's made of scenes (same issue, different scale). Both are lots of fun, though, thanks to action and badass Chiba. The 3rd film is probably the most coherent (that's not saying terribly much) in terms of storyline though as a whole it's the weakest. It's still worth a watch: the finale with Ishibashi is one of Chiba's best fight scenes.

I used to like Bearfighter better than Killing Machine because I valued action over story (and the film sure delivers in terms of action!) but now I feel both aspects are very important (another reason why I loved Bear so much back in the day may have been that when I first got into JP cult cinema in my teens, it was a whole new world so everything was new and would fascinate me. I've rewatched many old favourites recently (karate, pinky violence etc.) and some have lost a bit of their kick due to sloppy storytelling and weak plots, while others have gotten better, Killing Machine being one example).

In terms of balancing action and good storyline, The Defensive Power of Aikido is one of the best. It's a shame it's not out on dvd. As a (Aikido founder) biopic it's probably pure fantasy, but it's got a very good script that borrows themes of honor, loyalty and duty from 60s old school ninkyo yakuza films, and throws in excellent action.

As for a great example how to adapt a comic book there's Wolfguy. I see some people writing that it's inconsistent and tries too hard to cram 3 movies into 1, but I completely disagree. As far out as the film is, the story development feels entirely natural and the film travels a long way from a Tokyo City start to a mythical ending. Sort of like Lord of the Rings. At first Chiba is just chilling out in the hobbit village, but by the end he ends up in freaking Mt. Doom via Mordor. Now, that's a storyline that keeps raising the bets. One issue with some other films (e.g. Oyamas) is that opening and closing scenes could switch places and the audience wouldn't really notice...  there's just tougher opponents in the closing fight compared to the opening fight, but otherwise the films end pretty much like they have started.

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23 minutes ago, Takuma said:

They were all based on a manga, so I guess they were trying to cram in the best bits from various stories. The 1st film feels like it's made of episodes, while the second film feels like it's made of scenes (same issue, different scale). Both are lots of fun, though, thanks to action and badass Chiba. The 3rd film is probably the most coherent (that's not saying terribly much) in terms of storyline though as a whole it's the weakest. It's still worth a watch: the finale with Ishibashi is one of Chiba's best fight scenes.

I used to like Bearfighter better than Killing Machine because I valued action over story (and the film sure delivers in terms of action!) but now I feel both aspects are very important (another reason why I loved Bear so much back in the day may have been that when I first got into JP cult cinema in my teens, it was a whole new world so everything was new and would fascinate me. I've rewatched many old favourites recently (karate, pinky violence etc.) and some have lost a bit of their kick due to sloppy storytelling and weak plots, while others have gotten better, Killing Machine being one example).

In terms of balancing action and good storyline, The Defensive Power of Aikido is one of the best. It's a shame it's not out on dvd. As a (Aikido founder) biopic it's probably pure fantasy, but it's got a very good script that borrows themes of honor, loyalty and duty from 60s old school ninkyo yakuza films, and throws in excellent action.

As for a great example how to adapt a comic book there's Wolfguy. I see some people writing that it's inconsistent and tries too hard to cram 3 movies into 1, but I completely disagree. As far out as the film is, the story development feels entirely natural and the film travels a long way from a Tokyo City start to a mythical ending. Sort of like Lord of the Rings. At first Chiba is just chilling out in the hobbit village, but by the end he ends up in freaking Mt. Doom via Mordor. Now, that's a storyline that keeps raising the bets. One issue with some other films (e.g. Oyamas) is that opening and closing scenes could switch places and the audience wouldn't really notice...  there's just tougher opponents in the closing fight compared to the opening fight, but otherwise the films end pretty much like they have started.

I'm aware of the manga connection, and I wouldn't be surprised if they took liberties from even that. I very much concur that Bullfighter is painfully episodic, as there really isn't much focus on anything else other than Masutatsu Oyama himself; Shogo Ariake (Jiro Chiba) comes closest to being a deuteragonist, and I feel that the writers killed him off out of sheer ineptitude. It would've been interesting to see Ariake continuously doubling down on the recklessness whilst his (former) master finally tries to do the opposite. Either way, I'll track down the other two movies and see if they hold up at all.

Suffice to say, Karate Bullfighter was one of the flicks that got me into Sonny Chiba and chop sockey movies in general. I still remember coming across the movie in it's very exploitative Champion of Death name and being very much intrigued with the "Legendary Master Of Martial Arts" announcement (Which isn't necessarily untrue about Chiba, but I digress) and the cheap-as-chips DVD cover of the insignia with the dragon-clutching-a-pearl, all in a darkish red gritty tone, and on the back cover 2 of the 3 pics show a disheveled Chiba looking as if he literally lives in a cave (Which is kinda true for both the real life and "fictional" Oyama), prizing his ragged blue gi above all else, only leaving it once it a while just to deliver mystifying asymmetrical flying kicks at middle aged karate choppers and consorting with pavilion girls, and everyone at "Koyoko" wants the titular character dead, because reasons. Yup, my pre-teen imagination ran quite wild! It did not quite meet said expectations of an implied grindhouse rollercoaster fantasy, but it eventually grew on me nonetheless.

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I believe I might've made this observation before, but I would've preferred if both Bullfighter and Killing Machine were strictly fictional, with their respective real life masters being used as little more than templates, especially the latter. In hindsight, the references to Nakano Michiomi founding his school, and how it quickly grows and how they try so hard to link it to the real life deal, are a tad forced and don't contribute much of anything at all to the story or the themes, and it also severely hurts the remaining half of the movie as a result. Would've been better for Nakano to just have a small but loyal group of followers, but now I'm just being petulant. :angel

That explains why I haven't seen The Defensive Power of Aikido anywhere, ever. I imagined that it's also on the public domain like the Oyama trilogy and several more of Chiba's flicks, but nope!

I'll see if I can experience Wolfguy in one way or another, seeing as I'm not a regular consumer of Blu-ray nor do I have ownership of an all-region player just yet (Hat tip to @KUNG FU BOB for the heads up!). By all accounts it would seem that it's a spiritual prequel to Soul of Chiba, except actually good (I already kinda went off rails on my disapproval of that flick at the previous page) at pulling off the bizarre batshit craziness shtick whilst remaining mostly consistent and engaging at the same time. As for the opening/closing scenes, personally for me I don't mind the "ending just like how it started" effect of it creates a bookend effect, which from how you described isn't quite the case here.

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Truck Yaro: Dokyu Ichiban Boshi (Japan, 1977) [DVD] - 3.5/5

This 10 film series is what director Norifumi Suzuki is best known for in Japan. The series struck a perfect  balance between action, low brow comedy and touching drama. Bunta Sugawara and Kinya Aikawa star as two carefree trucker drivers sitting behind the wheels of gorgeously decorated trucks (aka dekotora, a once-flourishing sub-culture among Japanese truck drivers). In addition to action, comedy and drama each film adapted a road movie format where the protagonists would encounter various local attractions such as festivals around Japan. In a way, it was a truck variation of the wandering hero / watadori / matatabi concept that had been popular in old school yakuza movies (e.g. Zatoichi) and 60s action films like the Wandering Guitarist series. Each film also featured a rival truck driver played by a quest star (Sonny Chiba, Tomisaburo Wakayama etc.), a love interest for Sugawara, some nudity with Sugawara visiting a Turkish bath, a climatic race against the clock (and police), as well as a theme song by Sugawara and Aikawa. The films were formulaic and repetitive, but that was part of the charm.

This 5th film probably stands out most for the Western viewers due to Sonny Chiba's participation. It's also one of the better films in the series, repeating the usual formula with all the action, nudity, comedy, drama and festivals, and featuring one of the best climatic chase scenes in the series when Sugawara has to drive a truckload of fish from Kanazawa to Niigata, making an 8 hour drive in 5. Chiba plays the rival trucker, the leader of the Jaws gang whose vehicles are numbered Jaws I, Jaws II, Jaws III, Jaws IV and Jaws V. In addition to being badass and demolishing a small village with his truck, he also has an incredibly silly and funny fist fight with Sugawara. Speaking of Sugawara, many Western viewers who only know him from his yakuza roles may be surprised to see him doing physical slapstick comedy. The Japanese very much welcomed this approach, making 9 of the 10 Truck Yaro films annual Top 10 hits at the box office.

* Original title: Truck Yaro: Dokyu Ichiban Boshi (トラック野郎 度胸一番星)
* Director: Norifumi Suzuki
* Chiba's role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs), Toei BD (Japan) (No subs)

Sugawara
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Aikawa
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Their vehicles
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Sugawara visiting a Turkish bath
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Local festival
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Sugawara trying to, ehm, never mind
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Sugawara and Aikawa in trouble
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Enter Sonny Chiba
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That's Chiba, yes
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Robot Keiji: The Movie (Japan, 1973) [TV]
Despite the title, this is not so much a "movie" as a theatrical 25 minute edit combining scenes from multiple episodes from the Robot Detective TV series. It was created for the Toei Cartoon Festival, an anime and superhero film event held by Toei during holiday seasons and aimed at children. The original TV series, which ran 26 episodes, was an early entry in the Metal Hero genre and followed a robot detective who would dress in casual clothes on his free time. Sonny Chiba appeared in one episode, and his brother Jiro had a role as a (human) detective. The Movie Version compiles selected scenes from episodes 1-9, 11 and 12. As such, it's quite difficult to follow unless you've seen the original TV series as there is clearly too much content crammed into 25 minutes. It has also been cropped from its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio to theatrical 2.35:1, which causes major amounts of information to be cut off from top and bottom. That being said, the original TV series seems fun. Being more of a special compilation than a movie, I shall refrain from rating this version. Chiba appears in it briefly.

* Original title: Robotto keiji: gekijoban (ロボット刑事: 劇場版)
* Director: Various
* Chiba's role: Cameo (in the movie version)
* Film availability: None. Review format: TV
* TV series availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)

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Detective's car
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I can't stop laughing at this bad guy...
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As you can see, the framing is often way too tight vertically
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Jiro and Sonny
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Fighting Fist (Japan / Kong Kong, 1992) [DVD] - 2.5/5
Cheap but relatively watchable martial arts thriller is one of Sonny Chiba's few directorial efforts. The Japan - Hong Kong co-production probably originated from Japan where low budget V-Cinema films were the new big thing, and many of which were filmed abroad, including Chiba's 1991 film Minefield. Chiba is credited as the director in the Japanese print, but in the Hong Kong version Casey Chan, who was a producer-director involved in distribution of Japanese films, apparently gets the credit. The storyline is about a Japanese man (Shogo Shiotani) sent by his boss (Chiba) to Hong Kong to assassinate a gangster boss' family to lure the big man out. Local cops (Sibelle Hu, Chin Kar Lok) as well as nasty martial arts assassin (Ken Lo, Jackie's opponent in Drunken Master 2) are soon on his tail. The story then moves to Japan for a showdown. The film is a mess - badly acted, lacking in continuity, and suffering from needless ultra-cruel gore and strange characterization - but at the same time strangely watchable in a trashy sense. The action, which combines Japanese and Chinese martial arts, isn't half bad for this type of film, and Shiotani makes a passable poor man's Hiroyuki Sanada - he was a Japan Action Club member and the film was probably intended to make him a star. Unfortunately he committed suicide in 2002 at the age of 35.

* Original Japanese title: Haken furimukeba shura (覇拳 ふりむけば修羅)
* Director: Sonny Chiba / Casey Chan
* Chiba's role: Minor supporting role
* Film availability: Rarescope DVD (USA) (Japanese language version)

Strange subtitle error on Rarescope DVD. The Japanese on-screen text says "Director: Chiba Shinichi" but the subtitle say Casey Chan. There are other parts in the film as well where subtitles are inaccurate.
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Sibelle Hu, Chin Kar Lok
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Shogo Shiotani
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IMDb and HKMDB credit Masashi Ishibashi as "Sato's karate teacher" but that's not Ishibashi unless he's wearing 10 kilos of makeup and had his voice dubbed by a different Japanese actor. I don't think he's in the film at all.
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Ken Lo
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Chiba
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Edited by Takuma

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4 hours ago, Takuma said:

Fighting Fist (Japan / Kong Kong, 1992) [DVD]
Cheap but relatively watchable martial arts thriller is one of Sonny Chiba's few directorial efforts...The storyline is about a Japanese man (Shogo Shiotani) sent by his boss (Chiba) to Hong Kong to assassinate a gangster boss' family to lure the big man out. Local cops (Sibelle Hu, Chin Kar Lok) as well as nasty martial arts assassin (Ken Lo, Jackie's opponent in Drunken Master 2) are soon on his tail. The story then moves to Japan for a showdown. The film is a mess - badly acted, lacking in continuity, and suffering from needless ultra-cruel gore and strange characterization - but at the same time strangely watchable in a trashy sense. The action, which combines Japanese and Chinese martial arts, isn't half bad for this type of film, and Shiotani makes a passable poor man's Hiroyuki Sanada...

I am ultra-intrigued by this. Would love to watch it.

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On 2/4/2018 at 10:17 PM, ShaOW!linDude said:

I am ultra-intrigued by this. Would love to watch it.

Well, I would advice to keep expectations in check. It's not so much a "good film" as it is "good for what it is". Buf if you see it as a rather sloppy direct to video production, I think it's pretty watchable and has some good scenes like the Shiotani vs. Ken Lo fight (not's not very long, but I think it's entertaining).

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Akumyo: Tough Guys (Japan, 2001)  - 1.5/5[DVD]
A remake of the 1961 yakuza classic "Bad Reputation" which starred Shintaro Katsu and Jiro Tamiya. The new version casts Koji Matoba and Mikihisa Azuma, two gentlemen of far lesser reputations, in the lead roles. Sonny Chiba appears as a yakuza boss. Director Seiji Izumi, who spent the first 10 years of his career helming pink films, proved in the 80s that he could do more than just skin flicks (On the Road, 1982; Majoran, 1984). Perhaps this film would have been better had he directed it 15 years earlier, when he still had something to prove. The new  Akumyo is a regrettably lame, television-like period yakuza drama with a bit of underwhelming action and lots of talk. It was a (minor) theatrical release, but obviously intended for video distribution. Chiba's appearance is so brief that it doesn't justify seeing the film.

* Original title: Akumyo (悪名)
* Director: Seiji Izumi
* Chiba's role: Minor supporting role
* Film availability: Endless DVD (Japan) (No subs)

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Edited by Takuma

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On 9/4/2017 at 10:41 PM, Takuma said:

I just re-posted the reviews that went missing with the forum failure last week.

As randow news, Toei Channel started airing Blazing Dragnet (1975-1976) this week. The show ran 14 episodes. Stars Chiba, Shihomi, Hayato Tani, Isao Natsuyagi.

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Toei DVD set coming 2018/06/13. No subs of course.
- http://www.allcinema.net/prog/show_dvd.php?num_sid=1018438

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Kill Bill Vol. 1 (USA, 2003) -5/5 [DVD]
Out of Tarantino's masterpieces, this has the most nostalgia value for me for having come out when I was a high school kid - the perfect age to be exposed to an audio-visual genre film wonder full of samurai swords, Japanese school girls and Shaw Brothers sets. Nostalgia aside, it still holds up wonderfully even if the second half is stronger than the first, Tarantino goes a bit overboard DJing with his record collection, and I wish Thurman and Liu had had a bit more time to practice their Japanese dialogue. The slightly non-chronological structure, characters, music, and colourful sets and locations are all wonderfully handled, and the action isn't bad at all. Tarantino often gets accused of stealing, but I think he always adds his own unique flavour and context to the recycled elements (some of the criticism seems to come from people who acknowledge his sources but are not educated enough to evaluate them critically). Sonny Chiba is extremely well utilized in what are perhaps the film's finest scenes as retired sword smith Hattori Hanzo, and David Carradine gets a fine treatment in a small role that only utilizes his voice and hands. These two characters fine examples of Tarantino's skill to build ethereal, mythical aura around his characters that spring from the rich history of genre cinema.

* Japanese title: Kill Bill (キル・ビル)
* Director: Quentin Tarantino
* Chiba's role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Japanese Cut: Universal Japan DVD. US Cut: BD releases around the world, including all Japanese BD releases.

The bad guys... the same shot appears in Lady Snowblood, which was the biggest inspiration for the film.
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Bill with his Hanzo sword
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Table full of Sion Sono and Takashi Miike stars... Jun Kunimura (Why Don't You Play in Hell), Akaji Maro (The Room), Shun Sugata (Confessions of a Dog)...
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Chiba as the X'th generation Hattori Hanzo (following the tradition of Shadow Warriors... where he played a different generation Hanzo in each series). Space Sheriff Gavan and fellow JAC star Kenji Oba in the background. God I love their scenes in the film!
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Another Chiba on the right... Sonny's daughter Juri Manase
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Sakichi Sato, the screenwriter of Ichi the Killer, and Yuki Kazamatsuri (Female Teacher: Dirty Afternoon), Nikkatsu's Roman Porno rape queen of the 80s.
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Chiaki Kuriyama as Gogo Yubari (reference to Yubari Fanta Film Fest) which Tarantino loves.
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As everyone knows, the Japanese version features 1 extra minute of violence has the end fights in color
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It also explains what happened to Sophie's second arm...
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Another highly Lady Snowblood esque scene, not least because of Liu's dress and Kaji's song. Then again, snow garden fights weren't invented by Lady Snowblood...
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I was re-watching the extras on the JP dvd and... ahaa, the now notorious "Q strangling U" footage surfaces
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Q was actually doing the dirty work on Chiaki-chan's behalf
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Lovely footage of Uma practicing the choreographies alone at night
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Edited by Takuma

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The last three reviews were missing the ratings (I managed to confuse myself by refraining from rating Robot keiji...) Here they are:

Fighting Fist  - 2.5/5
Akumyo: Tough Guys - 1.5/5
Kill Bill Vol. 1  - 5/5

Let me also take this opportunity to post some cool Chiba posters that you may not have seen

First, two films that I have not been able to see

Fearful Witch (Eijiro Wakabayashi, 1962) (恐怖の魔女)
Judo for Life 2 (Kiyoshi Saeki, 1963) (柔道一代 講道館の鬼)

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Then a few films I have seen:

Special Tactical Police (Koji Ota, 1963) (特別機動捜査隊)
Special Tactical Police: Part 2 (Koji Ota, 1963) (特別機動捜査隊: 東京駅に張り込め)

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The Kamikazes (Kunio Watanabe, 1962) (南太平洋波高し)
Gambler's Love (Kiyoshi Saeki, 1963) (浅草の侠客)

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Edited by Takuma

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The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy (Japan, 1978) [DVD] - 3.5/5
Toei resurrected the samurai film genre with this epic, which served as their answer to the waning popularity of karate and yakuza films. It was the start of a new era of bigger budgeted Toei films, and even got released it as a standalone feature as opposed to half of a double feature. It was also the first time for Sonny Chiba to play the legendary ninja Yagyu Jubei, whom he would later portray in film, TV and stage. Kinji Fukasaku's take on the material was interesting as well: he'd dropped the documentary antics of his gangster films and taken creative, provocative freedoms from acknowledged history, while at the same time taking a more realistic approach than most 60s samurai films. It's a long and talkative tale of power struggle between two brothers (Hiroki Matsukata and Teruhiko Saigo) wishing to become the next shogun, with some historical dryness and perhaps a subplot or two too much. At the same time it's an interesting, massive and well crafted tale with some nice action and good performances by Chiba (whose JAC stars co-star in the film) and Kinnosuke Nakamura, whose highly theatrical acting creates a great portrayal of a man who is not allowed to show his true feelings under the Japanese etiquette. The audiences agreed: the film was the 3rd most popular domestic release of 1978.

Note: the film's theatrical trailer somewhat puzzlingly advertises The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy as Toei's return to jidai geki after 12 years. Had Toei not produced a single samurai film since 1966? Actually, the statement refers to Toei's Toei Tsurugikai unit, which specialized in sword fight action in the 1960s until samurai films went out of fashion at Toei. Toei Tsurugikai worked in closely with Chiba in The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy, trying to get the best out of Chiba and his JAC army. Chiba later went to star and choreograph numerous sword action films, and he has stated that his personal interest (more or less) shifted from karate towards sword action.

* English AKA: Shogun's Samurai
* Original title: Yagyû ichizoku no inbô (柳生一族の陰謀)
* Director: Kinji Fukasaku
* Chiba's role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: US DVD, UK DVD.

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Sonny Chiba's Yugyu Jubei filmography:
- The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy (1978) [Theatrical Film]
- The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy (1978-1979) [TV series]
- Yagyu Jyubei's Wild Travels (1980-1981) [TV series]
- Yagyu Jyubei abaretabi (1982-1983) [TV series]
- Yagyu Jyubei's Wild Travels (1980-1981) [TV series]
- Samurai Reincarnation (1981) [Theatrical Film]
- Samurai Reincarnation (1981) [Stage Play]
- Shogun Iemitsu, Hikosa and Tasuke Issin (1989) [TV film]
- Sarutobi Sasuke and the Army of Darkness  3 (2005) [DTV Film]
- Sarutobi Sasuke and the Army of Darkness  4 (2005) [DTV Film]

Edited by Takuma

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The Fall of Ako Castle (Japan, 1978) [DVD] - 4/5
A very good adaptation of the Loyal 47 Ronin story, produced as a follow-up of sorts to The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy. As audiences know, the story is about 47 loyal samurai who avenge the death of their master Asano who was ordered to commit harakiri. What director Fukasaku adds to the story is a strong focus on the politics of justice system (in a hieratical system the Shogun's word must always be true or the system might collapse - something that echoes WWII era Japan which Fukasaku lived) and a grittier approach to the still heroic tale. Fukasaku's collaborator Sonny Chiba is in excellent form as an actor (playing a minor character with great sympathy) and fight choreographer, making the 15 min end massacre not only bloodier but also more realistic, including a (literally) breathtaking 4 minute death duel with Tsunehiko Watase. At 159 minutes this film is among the shortest Chusingura adaptations (many others running up to 4 hours) which is cleverly achieved by reducing the opening act to just one scene, which is sufficient because the whole conflict between Asano his nemesis Kira is just a trigger to the main story. All in all, Fukasaku does excellent job with the material, utilizing fine performances, good editing, and especially Toshiaki Tsushima's music as a cinematic tool, coming out with a more consistent storyline than The Yagyu Clan Conspiracy.

* English AKA: Swords of Vengeance
* Original title: Akô-jô danzetsu (赤穂城断絶)
* Director: Kinji Fukasaku
* Chiba's role: Minor / major supporting role
* Film availability: US DVD

This scene with Lord Asano forced to commit harakiri while one of his samurai watches, acknowledging he's about to lose his place in society...
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...really concretizes the old class society. It plays better in Fukasaku's hands than in the Inagaki or Watanabe versions which I've also seen.
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Sonny Chiba playing a very likeable character
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The impatience and desperation among the waiting samurai...
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...while their leader (Kinnosuke Nakamura) is deceiving both the enemy and even his own family to make them think he's given up...
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...on revence, is depicted in every version of Chusingura, but Fukasaku gives it a slightly grittier, more desperate touch.
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Chiba vs. Watase
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Edited by Takuma

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Hunter in the Dark (Japan, 1979) [DVD] - 3.5/5
Effective if depressingly gloomy de-romantization of samurai romantics, a fitting continuation to Hideo Gosha cinematic work in 60s. The storyline is convoluted beyond belief with multiple simultaneous revenge quests and political plots. The main focus is on a one eyed assassin (Yoshio Harada) working for a gangster boss (Tatsuya Nakadai), clashing with a rotten politician (Tetsuro Tamba) and his right hand man, a sadistic police commander (Sonny Chiba in an excellent role.) This was a mid career film by Gosha, a messy but intriguing samurai epic full of sex and violence. Case in point: in scene where a gangster boss is assassinated in the upstairs, the blood drips through the floor and falls on a stripper's breasts, all set to a groovy score by Masao Sato in a scene that draws comparisons to Dario Argento, and not for the first time (Violent Streets, 1974) on Gosha's career. However, what the film really excels in is displaying swordfights as ugly, un-cinematic battle for survival. Chiba recalled in an interview that (despite only being in a handful of scenes) his part took two months to film due to Gosha's obsession for detail and realism in fight choreography.

* Original title: Yami no karyudo (闇の狩人)
* Director: Hideo Gosha
* Chiba's role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Shochiku DVD (Japan) (No subs), HK Video DVD (France) (French subs), Hong Kong DVD (full screen)

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Nakadai and Chiba
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Chiba
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I have the HK Video DVD of Hunter in the Dark... which comes in the usual gorgeous HK Video packaging...

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Part of Coffret Ronins & Yakuza Vol. 3 (aka Coffret Hideo Gosha Vol. 3). I have all three.

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I also used to own the inferior Shochiku DVD. Neither one looks that good, though...

Shochiku top, HK Video bottow

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As you can see, Shochiku is really soft and colorless... but while HK Video looks better in many scenes, but also unnatural and boosted in others.

Shochiku is now streaming a new HD master... I'm not sure if Criterion was (is?) streaming the same master. Sadly, that master is not on disc in either country...

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Sure Death Revenge (Japan, 1987) [DVD] - 2.5/5
A samurai detective (Makoto Fujita) known as the most unproductive man in the south magistrate precinct moonlights as a bounty hunter, unbeknownst to his verbally abusive colleagues and nagging wife and mother in law. This is uncharacteristically conventional mainstream entertainment by Kinji Fukasaku, based on a hugely popular television franchise that had already produced 29 consecutive TV shows and two film series. Based on this film alone, one could theorize the success was based on the mixture of strong focus on ordinary female characters, and a protagonist who is the archetype of Japanese businessman drudge yet a liberated fighter at night, appealing to both sexes. There was also a theme of (frequently odd) assassins, often given a humoristic treatment.

This film, the 4th in the 2nd film series, is hopelessly overlong with plentiful feminine drama, but occasionally exhilarating. The major saving grace is Sonny Chiba's heartfelt performance as a bounty hunter raising his two kids (including Sukeban Deka girl Haruko Sagara) to become his successors. Chiba was also responsible for the action choreography. While the fights are overly polished at times, they look so stylish played in excessive slow motion against a score that sounds like a mixture of Zorro and a spaghetti western that one does not really mind. Reportedly Fukasaku initially offered Chiba a chance to perform as Yagyu Jubei in this film, an idea Chiba turned down.

* Original title: Hissatsu 4: Urami harashimasu (必殺IV 恨みはらします)
* Director: Kinji Fukasaku
* Chiba's role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Shochiku DVD (Japan) (No subs), Artsmagic DVD (UK), Media Blasters DVD (US) (cropped / full screen)

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Makoto Fujita as Mondo Nakamura
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His wife and mother in law (aka "old battle axe")
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unaware of his second job as a bounty hunter
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Chiba
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with some fantastic action
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Haruko Sagara from Sukeban Deka II: Legend of the Girl in the Iron Mask (1985)
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And Keizo Kanie, also from Sukeban Deka II: Legend of the Girl in the Iron Mask
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That is Hiroyuki Sanada btw.
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Shogun's Shadow (Japan, 1989) [DVD] - 4/5
A group of ronin and ninjas volunteer to escort the shogun's heir to Edo when the whole country's army forces have been mobilized to kill them. This is Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring meets The Dirty Dozen done in samurai style with the attitude of Commando (1985). One of the last grand Japan Action Club films before Sonny Chiba was forced to sell it off, it doesn't disappoint with an almost non-stop delivery of fighting and great stunts. Chiba was in charge of the choreography, with China's Jianqiang Hu (The Shaolin Temple, Martial Arts of Shaolin) brought in to assist and co-star as a monkey fighter. American stunt choreographer George Fisher (The Towering Inferno) was also called in to stage the fire stunts. Reportedly the insurance costs for the stunt team was 400 million yen - more than most Japanese films cost to make.

Ken Ogata plays the hero, Chiba is the villain and showcases some great sword fighting that makes the audience cheer for the wrong team. Other than lacking the grit and exploitation of Chiba's older films, and coming with an odd 15 minute drama climax (which nevertheless works) this is tremendous fun (complete with a wonderfully 80s soundtract with metal songs by The Alfee). The fact that the film was criticized upon its release for having too much action (as stated by Chiba in Chris D's interview) helps to understand the sad state Japanese action cinema is in these days.

* Original title: Shôgun Iemitsu no ranshin - Gekitotsu (将軍家光の乱心 激突)
* Director: Yasuo Furuhata
* Chiba's role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: US DVD

Hiroki Matsukata as a corrupt minister servin Tokugawa Iemitsu (the same nutcase who was trying to kill his bro in Shogun's Samurai)
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Ken Ogata
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Jianqiang Hu, who also assisted in action choreography
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Chiba
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Great stunt work
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The trailer kicks ass too

 

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Seventeen Ninja (Japan, 1990) [TV] - 2/5
An underwhelming but watchable remake of the 1963 ninja classic, produced by Toei and Fuji TV as a television film. A group of  17 loyal Iga ninjas (lead by Sonny Chiba) are tasked with invading a castle and stealing a scroll protected by Negoro ninjas (led by Isao Natsuyagi) who are plotting to take over the government. While it's nice to see Chiba in a starring role (which clearly resembles his role in the Shadow Warriors TV show), this is a far cry from what he could do at his best. Anemically directed with unstimulating visuals and elevator music, it even disappoints with most of the action. What was no doubt meant as an intense "ninjas against impossible odds" scenario, with Iga ninjas dropping dead like flies throughout the film, merely makes them look incompetent on screen. It is only the last 30 minutes that provide some real intensity and a cleaver final fight. Amusingly, the storyline and Chiba's casting as a ninja protecting the shogunate from Negoro ninjas is the exact opposite from 1989's Shogun's Shadow where he played a villain trying to kill the shogun protected by Negoro ninjas.

* Original title: Jushichinin no ninja (十七人の忍者)
* Director: Kiyoshi Miyakoshi
* Chiba's role: Starring role
* Film availability: None / Review format: TV

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Edited by Takuma

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Dragon Princess (Japan, 1976) [DVD] - 4/5
One of the best Etsuko Shihomi films, also with one of the finest openings with Sonny Chiba fighting bad guys in an abandoned small church beaten by spaghetti western winds. Before the fight is over Chiba's got a dagger in his eye. Cut to eye patched Chiba training his daughter, who grows up into Etsuko Shihomi during the OP credits, in snow in Los Angeles (!), to avenge her dad. A weaker film but crush under such a diamond opening, but this is Shihomi and co-star Yasuaki Kurata in top form.

The straight forward plot has a habit of abandoning every story thread it introduces (Chiba is killed off by the 20 minute mark, the story moves from USA to Japan at the same time, and a bad guy is organizing a martial arts tournament but every top contender, and himself, is killed off before the tournament!) but that matters not as the film moves like a bullet train, packs truckloads of first grade karate action into 81 min and completes the package with Shunsuke Kikichi's kick ass score. From gender political perspective it's one of the finest films of its era/genre with Shihomi kicking major ass and no woman getting raped or stripped down (except in the American theatrical version which inserts a scene from Tokyo Emmanuelle in the middle of the film!). If you were to ask "what are fine women made of", this film's answer would be "positive attitude and karate kicks".

* Original title: Hissatsu onna kenshi (必殺女拳士)
* Director: Yutaka Kohira
* Chiba's role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Japanese Cut: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs); US Cut: BCI DVD (Eng Dub)

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The American version, which was distributed by Silverstein Films which also brought Karate Warriors to US cinemas, features the following notable differences:

1) At 79 minutes it's about 2 minutes shorter than the Japanese version. The major difference is that it's missing the New York opening crime with montage and Chiba being recommended as the new karate instructor for the police force. Instead the US cut goes straight to the opening fight.

2) Some of the opening crime montage later surfaces, inserted into a later scene when the assassins are assassinating the karate tournament contenders. Some of the assassination locations have changed as well ("Okinawa" is now "South America")

3) A brief party/sex scene from Nikkatsu's Roman Porno film Tokyo Emmanuelle (1975) has been inserted in the middle of the film. It comes during a night club scene where Kurata is drinking with Amatsu and suddenly the film cuts to a Nikkatsu actor dancing and shagging with Kumiko Taguchi!

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The score is the same as the Japanese version, and although the dubbed dialogue doesn't always match the storyline is essentially the same (unlike The Street Fighter's Last Revenge or The Bodyguard where the dub altered the original storyline)

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The small text says "Featuring the Incredible BLIND MASTER of the BLOODY BLADES!!!"

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A few words about the technical quality of the two Dragon Princess DVDs.

The BCI, which presents the English dubbed American cut of the film, is quite poor unfortunately. It's from a beaten print with pale colors and other issues.

The Toei dvd, which features no subtitles sadly, has 10 times better colors / brightness and is generally much better except for being really soft. However, if you sharpen the image artifically via your PC/TV/Player settings, the image gets a fair bit more pleasing without major side effects (and I'm not saying this as a "Toei fan" but as what I feel is an honest opinion). The film is certainly in a need of a better transfer, but for the time being the Toei DVD with some sharpening is easily the best way to view the film. Not to mention it's the original Japanese cut of the film.

Below is a comparison. BCI top, Toei Bottom.

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Here is a second comparison: Toei (untouched) vs. Toei (with MPCHC's sharpening). The bottom one is how the disc looks on my screen.

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