Key Hunter (Japan, 1968-1973)
This was Sonny Chiba’s most important, although not best, work in the 1960s. The detective TV series focusing on Japan’s International Secret Police was created by Chiba and Kinji Fukasaku as a starring vehicle for Tetsuro Tamba. Hayato Tani, Eiko Okawa, Yoko Nogiwa and Chiba, who was in charge of creating the action scenes, co-starred. Although the whole cast appeared together in some episodes, most of the 262 episodes highlighted one or two characters with the rest either supporting or taking a rest. It’s an uneven but enjoyable series that contained action, thriller and comedic storylines. Today it’s best remembered for Tamba’s cool charisma and Chiba’s wild stunts, that include breathtaking moments like Chiba climbing out of a speeding car and grabbing on to a small aircraft that is about to take off.
The series made Chiba an action superstar in Japan and earned him fans in Hong Kong, including Jackie Chan who admired Chiba’s stunt performances. Chiba himself later stated that the series was a goldmine for him to practice his skills as action performer. He also established Japan Action Club during the production of the series. That being said, most of the best action scenes are during the show’s later episodes; the earlier ones feature some cool stunts but also plenty of standard action. In total, Chiba appeared in 177 episodes of which in more than one third he was the main star.
The storylines often leaned towards fantasy, the best ones usually written by Yuichi Ikeda. One of the best episodes features a criminal who has changes his face with a plastic surgery trying to escape. His girlfriend, the detectives, and a bunch of assassins all infiltrate the same flight with him but no one knows each others’ identity. Other great stories include Chiba forced to double a race driver who is targeted by assassins, and a episode where a young German boy is trying to resurrect the Third Reich in Japan. Many of the comedic episodes with the female cast fare much worse. Also, it’s a bit a shame that most of Chiba’s episodes were written not by Ikeda, but Susumu Takaku, who mainly penned pretty standard storylines.
Note: the review is based on Toei’s 20 episode DVD Collection as well as on a couple of dozen early episodes I caught on TV.
* Original title: Key Hunter / Kii hantaa (キイハンター)
* Directors: Kinji Fukasaku, Ryuichi Takamori, Hajime Sato, Yasuo Furuhata etc.
* Chiba’s role: Co-starring role
* Availability: Toei DVD (5 x 4 = 20 episodes) (no subs). Review Format: TV + DVD