Monthly Archives: September 2016

Kamikaze Man: Duel at Noon

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Kamikaze Man: Duel at Noon (Japan/Taiwan, 1966)

Sonny Chiba and Kinji Fukasaku head to Taiwan in this international action thriller influenced by spy films and Hitchcock movies. Chiba is a playboy pilot who is mistaken for someone who he isn’t after witnessing a murder in ski centre. The other witness is a Taiwanese lady who is vacationing in Japan. Chiba agrees to fly her back home, but as soon as they land they run into gangsters who are searching for a lost WWII treasure and believe Chiba is the key to finding it.

Kamikaze Man is, first and foremost, an action showcase for Chiba, who designed all the action sequences which contain car chases, boat chases, fist fights, gunplay, and hanging on to a plane that is about to take off. One of the stunts – Chiba trying to hold on to a speeding car – sent him flying through the air and landed him in a Taiwanese hospital.

There’s a lot of fun to be had, although some of the chases suffer from minor under-cranking. In many ways, Kamikaze Man was a predecessor to Chiba’s action work in the television series Key Hunter (1967-1972), which finally made him an Asian action super star and earned him fans like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

The action scenes and foreign locations do pretty good job covering up for the screenplay, which is frankly a bit of a mess. For a film that intentionally plays with its audience, the final revelations are disappointingly simple. A clever storyline is not a necessity for a good action film, but it would be advisable to keep it simple from the beginning to avoid disappointment when there is no reward waiting at the end.

It’s also obvious this was a “fun project” for Fukasaku, who helms solid action entertainment but doesn’t invest too much care or ambition into the film, especially when compared to some of his later work.

As an interesting note, Kamikaze Man was the first time three major Toei stars (Fukasaku, Chiba, and guest star Ken Takakura) worked outside their own studio. Most Japanese filmmakers at the time were studio employees, who would work on any films their studio assigned them to. There was an unwritten rule among the major studios, that they would not try to steal each other’s stars, except maybe for a guest appearance. Although (technically speaking) this system came to an end in the early 70s, much of the industry, especially Toei, kept operating much in the same way until around 1977.

Kamikaze Man packed Toei’s top talent, but wasn’t produced by Toei. It was mainly financed by Ninjin Club, a small independent studio founded by three women in the 1950s to provide actors and filmmakers possibilities to do original films outside of their normal employers. Ninjin Club was able to exist because big studios wouldn’t really take notice of such a small independent studio, and the finished products would still be sold to (the filmmakers’ native) studios for distribution . The rest of the money came from Taiwan, where most of the filming took place. The majority of the supporting cast were Taiwanese actors, including the female lead. Toei would only distribute after acquiring the completed movie.

Though hardly a great movie, Kamikaze Man is a fun film that travelled quite a bit after its release. Japan and Taiwan aside, it also appears to have been released at least in Germany, Spain and Mexico – sometimes with highly misleading advertising campaigns (in the Spanish language poster Chiba has become a white man… and has a machine gun!). The filmmakers also all headed to international arenas: Fukasaku was involved in Japanese-American co-productions such as The Green Slime (1968) and Tora Tora Tora (1970), Takakura starred in Sidney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1974), and Chiba, who had already appeared in an international co-production before (Terror Beneath the Sea, 1966), would soon hook up with Bruce Lee girl Nora Miao in Tokyo-Seoul-Bangkok Drug Triangle (1973).

* Original title: Kamikaze yaro: Mahiru no ketto (カミカゼ野郎 真昼の決斗)
* Director: Kinji Fukasaku
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles), VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Chiba

And the girl

Welcome to Taiwan, Mr. Toilet

Takakura

Chiba just before he earned himself a hospital vacation

DVD NOTE
Toei’s DVD release is seriously flawed, I’m afraid. The image keeps turning green throughout the film. Basically, from every three seconds the first two look fine, and then the image turns green for one second. It gets a bit less serious towards the end, but remains very distracting. The 35mm print screened at the Chiba festival had no such problem, nor does the old, VHS quality VoD version or the equally dated TV master screened on Toei Channel. When I re-watched the movie at home, I actually turned the DVD off after 10 minutes, and watched the VoD version instead.

DVD screencaps highlighting the problem. In both screencap pairs the second screencap is taken about 2 seconds after the first.

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The Terror Beneath the Sea

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The Terror Beneath the Sea (Japan/USA, 1966)
The young & handsome Sonny Chiba stars as the lone Japanese lead in this Japan-US co-produced sci-fi cheese-fest. Chiba and his attractive blonde companion encounter mad scientists and horrifying underwater men who usually jump (yes, jump) from behind the corner with their hands in a “boo” pose. Hardly great filmmaking, but it comes with plenty of amusing SFX work and unintentional laughs. Chiba is the only cast member who evidences any kind of acting talent. It’s solid campy fun, and a more enjoyable movie than Golden Bat, which was also directed by Hajime Sato and released the same year. This was probably the first time for many foreign audiences to see Chiba, as it was released in a number of countries, such as Germany, Austria, Italy, and USA (as a TV film).

* Original title: Kaitei daisenso (海底大戦争)
* Director: Hajime Sato
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles, all dialogue in Japanese), Dark Sky Films DVD (USA) (English dub)

Golden Bat

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Golden Bat (Japan, 1966)
Japan’s first ever super hero, who debuted in the early 1930s kamishibai (narrated “paper theatre”, returns in a live action film starting Sonny Chiba. Unfortunately Chiba is not playing the skull-faced (rubber masked) hero Golden Bat, but a bearded scientist who discovers Atlantis, where Golden Bat is resting. His help is needed against manically laughing evil aliens (including one who looks like a werewolf) who intend to destroy the earth. It’s nice to see Chiba given a charismatic authority role at this relatively early stage of his career, but frankly he doesn’t have that much to do in the film even though he’s the leading actor. The film has its entertaining campy moments, but it could be more fun. At 73 minutes it feels a bit longer than it really is.

* Original title: Ogon batto (黄金バット)
* Director: Hajime Sato
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Chiba

Chiba

Golden Bat

Abashiri Prison 6: Duel in the South

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Abashiri Prison 6: Duel in the South (Japan, 1966)
Sonny Chiba’s second appearance in the series comes in one of the weakest Abashiri Prison films. This instalment takes place as far away from Abashiri as possible in Okinawa. The actual Abashiri prison is only featured in stock footage. The storyline mostly focuses on Ken Takakura and goofy pal Kunie Tanaka coming across a pick pocketing kid (whose hooker mom is played by Ishii regular, pinky violence supporting star Yoko Mihara). Veteran star Kanjuro Arashi is the best thing about the film. Chiba has a slightly bigger role than in the 4th Abashiri film, but he doesn’t have much to do. He plays a distinctly different character than last time, unlike some other actors. One characteristic of the series was actually that the same actors would return in sequels, playing essentially the same roles even if their characters had been killed before, which could be a bit confusing at times.

* Original title: Abashiri bangaichi: Nangoku no taiketsu (網走番外地 南国の対決)
* Director: Teruo Ishii
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles), Toei Blu-Ray (Japan) (No subtitles)

Takakura and Tanaka

Mihara and the kid

Chiba and Toru Yuri

Chiba and Takakura

Chiba

It’s an Abashiri Prison film, so you know Kanjuro Arashi is going to show up and kick everyone’s ass sooner or later

The original trailer is cooler than the film itself

Abashiri Prison 4: Northern Seacoast Story

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Abashiri Prison 4: Northern Seacoast Story (Japan, 1965)

The 4th film in the long running Abashiri Prison series that cemented Ken Takakura’s status as the biggest yakuza film star of the 60s. The 1965 original movie established the formula: Takakura is a punkish but ultimately honourable tough guy whose path always leads back to the Abashiri Prison in the snowy Hokkaido that characterized the first film. Director Teruo Ishii helmed them in contemporary style that borrowed elements from ninkyo yakuza films but still retained a modern feel. The films proved so popular Ishii had to deliver up to new 4 films a year, whether or not it was winter, and whether or not they were able to film in Hokkaido.

Northern Seacoast Story takes the story back to the snowy Hokkaido after a couple of warmer entries (of which the 3rd movie was admittedly one of the best in the series). Unfortunately it’s not among the series highlights. The film opens with silly comedy routines with two gay prisoners before turning into a yakuza film variation of Stagecoach (1939) when Takakura is set free and he takes a job to drive a certain truck through Hokkaido. The cargo is cargo a runaway teenager (Reiko Ohara), a mother accompanied by sick child, and two ruthless criminals (Tooru Abe and Takashi Fujiki). It’s hardly an original movie, but the solid genre cast, jazz soundtrack and winter landscapes provide enough entertainment to warrant a viewing for fans. Sonny Chiba plays a small supporting role as an inmate with health problems. His character initiates the plot, but is only featured in the early scenes.

* Original title: Abashiri bangaichi: Hokkai hen (網走番外地 北海篇)
* Director: Teruo Ishii
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles), Toei Blu-Ray (Japan) (No subtitles)

Code of Ruffians

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Code of Ruffians (Japan, 1965)
Strictly by-the-numbers yakuza drama about a yakuza clan gone straight, now working on a construction project in the mountains, and of course bullied by an evil gang. Koji Tsuruta stars; Sonny Chiba has a smallish and unremarkable role as a young, rich construction project boss, who learns something about the realities of life outside urban centres. Takashi Shimura and Junko Fuji appear in supporting roles. There were quite a few of these kind of movies back in the mid 60s, including some others featuring Chiba (e.g. Dragon’s Life, 1964; and North Sea Chivalry, 1967). They made an interesting point of how much of the modern Japan was supposedly built by yakuza clans. They usually emphasized how the former clans had given up on criminal life, and consequently contained only limited amounts of hard boiled “gangster cinema”. In this one, too, one has to wait until the final 15 minutes before Tsuruta goes into the yakuza mode. Unfortunately the film isn’t all that involving. Director Yusuke Watanabe would make his biggest hit two decades later with the beloved action/drama/comedy Keiji Monogatari (1982).

This film probably has another English title as well, which I’d love to share with everyone if God was kind enough to tell me which page in Chris D’s yakuza film book I should be looking at. If anyone has found it, please let me know.

* Original title: Buraikan jingi (無頼漢仁義)
* Director: Yusuke Watanabe
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Tsuruta

Chiba

Shimizu

Junko Fuji

Tsuruta finally in yakuza mode

Meiji Underworld – Yakuza G-Men

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Meiji Underworld – Yakuza G-Men (Japan, 1965)
“G-Men” was something of a buzz word in the 1960s Japanese action/crime cinema. It’s was a popular slang term for Government Men or undercover agents. Toei especially liked to use it whenever the storyline had something to do with policemen going undercover. In this film it’s the Japanese gangster Hiroki Matsukata who is forced to work for the police to find out who robbed a truck full of gold. Of course, there is very little doubt about who did it as soon as yakuza film baddie Bin Amatsu walks into the frame. Director Eiichi Kudo was better known for his samurai classics like 13 Assassins. This early 20th century set gangster film is not especially badly made, but it is strangely unmoving. It’s neither very original nor that stylish, although the few action scenes it has are entertaining. Sonny Chiba has a small and forgettable supporting role as one of the detectives, with about 10-15 minutes of screen time.

* Original title: Yakuza tai G Men: Meiji ankokugai (やくざGメン 明治暗黒街)
* Director: Eiichi Kudo
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Matsukata

Amatsu

Chiba

Sing to Those Clouds

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Sing to Those Clouds (Japan, 1965)

The success of Here Because of You (1964) produced a whole bunch of loosely related follow-ups, all musically oriented youth films starring the lovely Chiyoko Honma. She’s a singing high school girl again, in the middle of a truly complicated love/hate/friendship mess where her former best friend’s rebellious brother (Jiro Okazaki) has a crush on her, while she has a crush on her teacher, while the ex-friend is trying to sabotage her happiness, and then there’s a few other guys with a crush on her as well. The film’s first half is a bit too loose with somewhat random scenarios, but it works pretty well when it follows the young rebel Okazaki. Oddly enough, the real co-star, pop singer Teruhiko Saigo, gets the shorter straw just like Kazuo Funaki did in Here Because of You.

Sonny Chiba is a teacher again, although he’s a literature teacher this time. That doesn’t stop him from catching underage smokers and making them jump the rope as punishment until they drop from exhaustion, though. The role is smaller than last time, but nevertheless very enjoyable. The film is not quite on par with the better written and catchier Here Because of You, but director Koji Ota helms the film with just enough style and inserts many musical scenes, including a out-of-nowhere appearance by pop idol group Johnny’s. Once again, the film is charmingly old fashioned and very 60s. Filmed in the beautiful seaside landscapes of Bōsō Peninsula.

* Original title: Ano kumo ni utaou (あの雲に歌おう)
* Director: Koji Ota
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role (but not that small)
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Chiyoko Honma and Teruhiko Saigo

Young rebel Jiro Okazaki

Chiba sensei

Don’t screw with Chiba

Or he’ll make you jump the rope

Johnny’s (there’s more in the tree)

Teruhiko Saigo singing on his way home

Here Because of You

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Here Because of You (Japan, 1964)

A very enjoyable youth film about two high school kids who aren’t exactly in love, but certainly have a bit of love/hate sparks between them. It was a starring vehicle for two young pop stars, Kazuo Funaki and Chiyoko Honma (Yakuza’s Song, 1963). However, it is Sonny Chiba as their nice guy gymnastics teacher who ends up having one of the film’s best roles. Chiba lands himself in trouble after one of his students hurts himself in his class, and the kid’s father begins a smear campaign to get him fired. What results is a high school “court room” session where the double faced adults are accusing Chiba of everything they can think of while his students come to his defense. Director Ryuchi Takamori helmed numerous mediocre action films in the 1960s. This movie, his first as a director, is different. It’s full of upbeat energy, good performances, and catchy songs. It an old fashioned movie in the most positive sense.

* Original title: Kimitachi ga ite, boku ga ita (君たちがいて僕がいた)
* Director: Ryuichi Takamori
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Kazuo Funaki and Chiyoko Honma

Chiba as their teacher

Honma finds Chiba has never washed his dirty socks… he has stored them all in the closet

Chiba and Junko Miyazono

Decree from Hell

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Decree from Hell (Japan, 1964)
While Toei’s gangster movies are best remembered for the chivalrous ninkyo movies (roughly 1963-1972) and the documentary style jitsuroku movies (roughly 1969-1977), there also existed a third sub-genre that we might simply call contemporary gangster films. Decree from Hell belongs to this genre, and like many others of its kind, it suffers from the lack of strong genre identity. Chiezo Kataoka is a gangster boss who barely escapes an assassination attempt by Toru Abe’s evil gang. A gang battle ensues. This is a forgettable time waster with a fairly routine storyline, a bit of action and some humour. There’s quite a bit of focus on the gangsters’ families and gangs, including Sonny Chiba as Kataoka’s teenage son who wishes to gave no part in the criminal business. The film is a part of a very loosely related series of “Hell” movies, all starring Kataoka.

* Original title: Jigoku meirei (地獄命令)
* Director: Shigehiro Ozawa
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: None. Review Format: TV

Kataoka

Silly comedy… many gangster movies at that time had these scenes

Chiba

Chiba

Chiba