Yes, Arrow are once again pillaging the Tohei archives, for a release that would have had James Ferman shitting bricks, back in the day, over its gratuitous nunchuck slinging and general levels of martial arts mayhem. What are the BBFC thinking? What’s the world coming to?
During 1974 Sonny Chiba had already starred in The Street Fighter (Gekitotsu! Satsujin Ken), Return Of The Street Fighter (Satsujin Ken 2) and The Streetfighter’s Last Revenge (Gyakushû! Satsujin Ken), not to mention several other features and the TV series Za Bodigaado, but such was the pressure to cash in on the box office bonanza inspired by Bruce Lee’s impact in Robert Clouse’s Enter The Dragon (1973), Sonny also found time to mentor and contribute a supporting performance to the lovely Etsuko Shihomi, herself a supporting player in the Streetfighter flicks but now spun off into her own franchise, commencing with Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Sister Streetfighter (Onna Hissatsu Ken).
Li Koryu, Shihomi’s character, is a half Chinese / half Japanese martial arts ace whose big brother goes missing while trying to infiltrate a Japanese drugs ring led by the menacing Mister Kakuzaki (Bin Amatsu), a dude so megabad that he boasts of killing 50 bulls in South America with his bare hands (“Everyone who opposes me goes to Hell!” he adds, just in case anybody failed to get the point). Mr K is importing industrial amounts of liquid heroin into Japan, sprayed onto wigs (I guess there’s no better way of increasing the number of smack heads!)
With the occasional aid of some ass kicking girlfriends and Sonny (as Seiichi Hibiki), Koryu attempts to rescue her brother from Mr Big’s drug dungeon by fighting her way through Kakuzaki’s assembled henchmen (guys wearing wicker bins over their heads, dudes with swastikas on their karate suits, a bunch of Thai girls in Betty Rubble dresses, a Mohican tonsured blow pipe assassin in a fancy dress outfit, et al), each of them expert in various fighting codes. I love the way these guys manage to get a few licks in before there’s a freeze-frame and caption identifying their particular discipline. Who says you never learn anything from exploitation films? After watching Sister Streetfighter, you’ll never again confuse Karate with Shorinji Kempo. Hopefully. Anyway, despite Koryu’s best efforts, Big Bro gets bumped off, setting up a particularly choice, wire-assisted climactic dust-up during which Kazukaki dons razor claws in an obvious attempt to evoke the denouement of Enter The Dragon.
Having Sonny Chiba as your support act is obviously a high risk strategy and Sonny nearly steals the show with such moves as breaking the arms of a guy who has the temerity to flash spiky knuckle dusters at him, then disembowelling a fat baddy with his bare hands (that’ll teach him to maintain his six-pack!) But Shihomi trumps this by twisting one crim’s head around the full 180, after which he staggers down the stairs looking very sorry for himself. All this to the delirious aural accompaniment of wicky-wacky guitar and blaring horns… audiences were clamouring for more and director Yamaguchi didn’t keep them waiting very long.
Sister Streetfighter: Hanging By A Thread (above) was in theatres before the end of 1974. No Sonny this time out but plot wise, it’s pretty much “as you were”, with Koryu travelling from HK to Yokohama to locate a woman who’s been drawn into a diamond smuggling syndicate which transports its illicit goodies in the buttocks of trafficked women (“Dealing in blood diamonds is a real pain in the ass!” quips one of the bad guys in a dubious, er, crack). As if the buttock slicing sequences aren’t unpleasant enough, there’s a scene of torture and eye violence (inflicted on Koryu’s sister) which reminded me very much of Lucio Fulci’s Contraband (1980). The eyes very much have it in this film… Koryu is alerted to the bad guys’ nefarious deeds on viewing micro film retrieved from a dead man’s glass eye (!) and when she finally confronts the operation’s Mr Big, she nails his glasses to his eyeballs in a sweet bit of poetic justice. By this point, of course, it must feel like a hollow victory as most of her nearest and dearest have been wiped out in the process and the film ends with Koryu’s agonised wailing… hanging by an emotional thread, indeed.
Our girl is assisted at the denouement by a Ronin figure who initially threw his hand in with the mobsters, only to switch his allegiances. Obviously intended to invoke Clint Eastwood’s intense drifter in Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars, 1964 (itself a pinch from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, 1961), this is just about the only significant innovation in what’s essentially a cookie cutter sequel, plot-wise…
Continuing ossification is signified as early as the title sequence of Return Of The Sister Street Fighter (1975), which is lifted lock, stock and barrel from its predecessor (and in which Shihomi goes though her combat stances in a hall of mirrors setting that’s clearly, er, indebted to Enter The Dragon). The plot (Kuryo versus fiendish gold smugglers) is another retread and the film’s shortened running time also suggests that the law of diminishing returns is starting to set in. Most disappointingly, Yamaguchi dispenses with those freeze frame martial arts captions.
In an attempt to distract our attention from the stale plotting, The “Mister Big” figure in this one is pitched so over-the-top, he’s virtually in orbit. Confined to a wheelchair, he presides over martial arts tournaments in which the cream of the world’s evil henchman-types fight to the death for the right to take on Koryu. Why, one wonders, doesn’t he just send them all? While we’re asking, when Koryu is fighting the bad guys, why do they always form an orderly queue instead of all rushing her at once? And wouldn’t it be more effective to just shoot her? Alas, there are no guns in these gentlemen’s bouts…
Despite spouting lines like: “Kill all pests… that’s my philosophy!”, Koryu’s foe also makes the classic Bond baddy mistake (much lampooned in the Austin Powers films) of not killing her outright whenever he gets the chance. After she’s wiped the floor with all his goons, Mr Big (whose just been outed as a War Criminal) somersaults out of his wheelchair (that’s his incapacity benefit claim fucked) and whips off his Michael Jackson glove to reveal a golden hand (exposing Goldfinger for the cheapskate we always suspected him to be) before going (golden) mano a mano with Koryu. She’s assisted in the final showdown by another freelancing Clint Eastwood type, who gets his own subplot concerning his rivalry with a Lee Van Cleef clone (!) Koryu also has to protect the young daughter of a mob victim, whose “cute” antics will really grate on your nerves.
This particular formula was clearly getting a bit played out but Sister Streetfighter: Fifth Level Fist, a 1976 effort from original Street Fighter director Shigehiro Ozawa, shakes things up so much that it’s debatable whether this one actually belongs in the Sister Streetfighter series or on this box. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always a pleasure to see the lovely Ms Shihomi doing her fistic thing… though she doesn’t really get to do that much of it here, her character (reinvented as the 100% Japanese “Kiku Nakagawa”) expending most of her energy on foiling her social-climbing parents’ attempts to marry her off to some boring young Professional. Ozawa privileges romantic comedy and social comment (notably women’s emancipation and racial prejudice) over martial arts and the heroin smuggling gangsters, when they eventually appear, are more realistically depicted (less of the Blofeld stuff but more self-referential humour, as they front up their operation with a film production studio).
A despised social marginal because of his mixed race heritage, Jim Sullivan (Ken Wallace) falls in with the mobsters but is eliminated when he becomes a liability to them. This tragic figure is sympathetically portrayed and gets his own sweetly soulful theme on the soundtrack. His half-sister Michi (Rabu Micchii) calls in her friend Kiku to bring the bad guys to book but as much time is spent on the sexual tension between her and the investigating cop Takeo Nakagawa (Masafumi Suzuki) as on fighting. Only at the end does Kiku kick over the traces and really get to express herself with her feet and fists before another triumphant / downbeat ending…
Bonus wise, you get another excerpt from Arrow’s ongoing interview with Sonny (Shinichi to his mum) Chiba, who talks of his working relationship with Etsuko Shihomi plus interviews with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (initially dubious about the new female star, he was ultimately won over “by her dimples and her physical capabilities) and screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda (“We wracked our brains, day and night, to come up with scenarios for the bad guys”). There are various trailers for the films and a stills / poster gallery. The reversible sleeve features original and newly commissioned artwork by one Kungfubob O’ Brien and there’s an illustrated booklet featuring writing on the series by Patrick Macias and a new essay on the U.S. release of Toei’s karate films by Chris “Temple Of Schlock” Poggiali, which you won’t see once the first pressing has sold out or if you’re a humble blogger like me.
Chiba expresses his regret that Shihomi eventually (in a case of life imitating Sister Streetfighter: Fifth Level Fist) got married and retired from action movies. Who knows what she’d have achieved if she’d continue to develop her extraordinary abilities on the silver screen? Sixth Level Fist at least, I reckon. But I’d have to check one of those freeze frame captions to be sure…