Author Archives: sketchesofcinema

The Gorilla Seven

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The Gorilla Seven (Japan, 1975)

An initially disappointing follow-up to Sonny Chiba’s badass 1974 TV shows The Bodyguard (*). Chiba leads a private 7 man team specializing in miscellaneous protection and crime solving missions. Jiro Chiba, Etsuko Shihomi and Yuki Meguro return from The Bodyguard, Isao Natsuyagi, Akira Nishikino and Maria Elizabeth are new additions to the team. JAC is responsible for the stunts as usual.

Despite the great premise, the show suffers from excessive poor comedy and a laidback tone that is in stark contrast with the violent, even nihilist The Bodyguard. The storylines tend to be very forgettable, and so are the characters who spend half of their time fooling around. Shihomi’s character supposed to be a ninja descendant, but that is merely a bit of trivia you’d never figure out based on what her character is doing in the series.

There is much less fighting than in The Bodyguard, and too much of it is left for the less capable members such as Meguro and Natsuyagi. As a slight compensation, there’s more focus on stunts, including Chiba grabbing on to a plane about take off (he did the same stunt in Key Hunter) or hanging from a ropeway wires. Not all of the stunts are as exciting, though.

Thankfully halfway into the 26 episode show the crew seem to have realised they need to get a grip, and they do. The last 10 episodes are quite enjoyable, with better action and better stories, the highlight being a terrific episode that co-starts Masashi Ishibashi as a hitman armed with a machine gun. Other cool episodes include Shihomi going undercover, and a storyline with Jiro where two rich douche bags are hiring proxy fighters (and bikers) and betting money on whose fighter survives.

Big name quest stars are quite few in the show, and most of them appear during the late episodes. Pinky Violence star Yumiko Katayama makes a 2 scene appearance in one of the two episodes directed by Teruo Ishii, Yuriko Hishimi has a central role in one episode, and Roman Porno actress Yuri Yamashina plays Ishibashi’s girlfriend.

It’s a shame the show is so uneven since it does come with rewards towards the end. In case one starts getting bored after the first few episodes, I recommend jumping straight to episode 17 (perhaps via episodes 11 and 13) as from there on almost every episode is a good one. There is no harm in doing that, thanks to nonexistent character development and lack of any kind of story connections between the episodes.

* Chiba had his own TV slot on NTV in 1974-1976. He starred in five shows in total starting with the karate actioner The Bodyguard (1974), followed by the action/crime shows The Gorilla 7, Blazing Dragnet (1975-1976) and Emergency Line (1976), and finally the family drama Nanairo tongarashi (1976).

* Original title: The Gorilla 7 (ザ・ゴリラ7)
* Director: Various
* Chiba’s role: Starring Role
* Availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs) (December 2017). Review format: TV.

One of the worst episodes. The Gorillas use small radio-controlled planes to…

… fight gangsters who are comedic idiots

Thankfully there’s good stuff too, like Chiba with a gun

Jiro with a bike

Shihomi vs. Ishibashi

Chiba vs. Ishibashi

Some of the stunts are cool

Shihomi looking good

Soundtrack

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Robot Keiji: The Movie

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Robot Keiji: The Movie (Japan, 1973)

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.

* 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)

The detective’s car

I can’t stop laughing at this bad “guy” (bad robot?) who kidnapped the lady…

As you can see, the framing is often way too tight vertically

Jiro and Sonny

Wandering Ginza Butterfly: She-Cat Gambler

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Wandering Ginza Butterfly: She-Cat Gambler (Japan, 1972)

The first Wandering Ginza Butterfly movie (which did not feature Chiba) was a bit of a mishmash that brought Meiko Kaji, who had just quit Nikkatsu, to Toei. Toei saw her as potential heir to Junko Fuji, their biggest female yakuza star whose retirement earlier in 1972 had ended the Red Peony Gambler series and put another nail in the soon-to-be-buried ninkyo yakuza genre which Toei was reluctant to let die. Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, who was fresh off from his trendy and contemporary Delinquent Girl Boss series, turned the film into a hybrid between modern and old school yakuza films. The movie had its share of exhilarating scenes, but was also too routinely written with silly comedic relief and standard yakuza trappings to be a classic.

This slightly superior sequel gets off to a very good start with boobs, sunset, a Meiko Kaji theme song, and an excellent gambling duel before the film has even hit the 12 minute mark. A moment later Sonny Chiba shows up as a goofy entrepreneur running a small prostitution business! Unfortunately the rest of the film is not as good, save for the finale. The film comes with the usual yakuza film clichés, including Chiba’s comedy sidekick (Toru Yuri), an evil gang harassing girls, and an old ex yakuza (Junzaburô Ban, who played identical role in Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess) trying to do something good for once. However, the tale comes back to life big time at the end where Kaji and Chiba, armed with swords and pistols, finally decide they’ve had enough of it! This isn’t a movie that utilizes Kaji’s talent, but she’s gorgeous as usual. Chiba looks like he ran off from the set of a Yakuza Deka film and started dealing girls instead of catching bad guys. It’s nice to have him here, although the finale is his only real standout. Unlike in the 1st film, there’s not much of ninkyo influence left in this production, and perhaps that was for the best.

* Original title: Gincho nagaremono mesuneko bakuchi (銀蝶渡り鳥 牝猫博奕)
* Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
* Chiba’s role: Major Supporting Role
* Film availability: Synapse DVD (USA), Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)

Kaji playing againts Shingo Yamashi

Club scene reminiscent of the Delinquent Girl Boss and Stray Cat Rock films

Yukie Kagawa on the fight

Chiba and Toru Yuri

King of Gangsters

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King of Gangsters (Japan, 1967)

The 11th and final film in the Gang series. Most of the films had different directors and cast, and were only connected by the title and Toei’s marketing department. Unlike the early entries, which were jazzy capers, this final entry is a prototype jitsuroku yakuza film. Just back from the war, Noboru Ando leads a gang of war vets turned gangster in the US occupied streets of Tokyo. They get into a conflict with a Chinese gang as well as the military police. Tetsuro Tamba appears as a police chief trying to bring peace to the streets; 1st wave pinky violence star Masumi Tachibana is a girl grieving his dead gangster father. Like many of director Yasuo Furuhata’s films, this is light on action and relatively realistic in characterization to the point becoming dull. It is more interesting as a somewhat nationalistic peek into the history of Japan and modern yakuza than as a gangster flick. Sonny Chiba plays one of Ando’s men, but like most supporting roles in the film, his part is ultimately minor despite getting a decent amount of screen time.

* Original title: Gyangu no teiô (ギャングの帝王)
* Director: Yasuo Furuhata
* Chiba’s role: Minor Supporting Role
* Film availability: None. Review format: TV

Ando in the middle. Hideo “I’m in every gangster flick” Murota in the backround

Sonny Chiba (right) and Shingo Yamashiro (in a relatively non-comedic role)

Four Sisters

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Four Sisters (Japan, 1962)

Fans of Sonny Chiba’s violent action movies may find it surprising that there was a time when he was occasionally cast as “love interest”. Such is the case in this film, which is a bit of an unusual movie in Toei’s generally very masculine body of work. It’s a family drama (adapted from a novel by Fumio Niwa) about four sisters and their mother who wants to marry them off to respectable and successful men rather than to the ones they really love. The protagonist (Yoshiko Mita) is being arranged to businessman Fumio Watanabe although her heart belongs to handsome but poor Chiba. Chiba has only four or five scenes but he’s bursting with youthful energy as he often did in his early roles. The film itself is decent in a genre that is not exactly my cup of green tea.

* Original title: Sanroku (山麓)
* Director: Masaharu Segawa
* Chiba’s role: Small Supporting Role
* Film availability: None. Review format: 16mm

Mid-August Commotion

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Mid-August Commotion (Japan, 1962)

Toei’s early 1962 release The Escape, which was one of the many films depicting the February 26th Incident of 1936, must have been a success since this movie, released in August, is almost a carbon copy. It is, however, loosely based on a different true story. This one deals with Japan’s surrendering in WWII. On August 14-15 the surrendering declaration had already been prepared for broadcasting; however, a group of rebel soldiers attempted a coup d’état (just like February 26th) by invading the emperor’s palace. Koji Tsuruta is the hero trying to get the recording out of the house for public broadcasting. It’s a standard film that works pretty well once the action begins; however there’s a good 45 minutes of talk before things start rolling. Sonny Chiba, who had a tiny role as a solder in The Escape, has a few more minutes of screen time here as a doctor invited to the house as a part of the plot to get Tsuruta out.

* Original title: 八月十五日の動乱 (8 gatsu 15 nichi no douran)
* Director: Tsuneo Kobayashi
* Chiba’s role: Small Supporting Role
* Film availability: None / Review format: TV

New 7 Color Mask

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New 7 Color Mask (Japan, 1960)

Sonny Chiba landed his very first acting role with a bit of luck. Drafted by Toei in 1959, he replaced Susumu Namishima in Toei’s first ever superhero TV show 7 Color Mask after Namishima dropped out after 31 episodes. Chiba took his role as Detective Ran (the show was then renamed as New 7 Color Mask), a master of disguise fighting all sorts of foreign super villains threatening Japan, including “Golden King” and a middle east terrorist group using poison gas emitting spiders. Ran’s ace in the sleeve was turning into an invincible masked superhero, 7 Color Mask. It’s a world where kilt-wearing masked villains are running around in broad daylight, the police bow to a private detective who solves all crimes for them, and everybody is always fooled by the silliest of disguises. A bit of child-like mindset is required from the viewer.

Chiba himself looks self-assured as stylish as hell in black suit, also benefiting from solid production values (the series was originally meant to be released as edited movie versions in theatres as well, hence shot on 35mm, though only Namishima’s episodes made it to the silver screen). Chiba did all of his own stunts and fighting, with no “suit actor” (stunt performer for the superhero scenes) utilized in the show. The show’s main liability is its unimaginative writing. Ran’s invincibility always saves him from any trouble, and storylines tend to drag a bit until it’s time for the bad guys to get caught.

Toei produced a total of 26 episodes of the show. Episodes 1-13 are included in Toei’s recent 4 disc DVD set. Episode 14 is also featured as an extra. The rest will probably never be seen as, according to Toei’s announcement, the negatives are lost. This seems to have been the case already back in the 1980s when the same 13 episodes were released on video. The positive news is that the series is made of independent story arcs, 1-13 episodes each. The DVD release contains the first two stories (episodes 1-6 and 7-13) in their entirety. The final story arch (episodes 14-26) is missing except for the first episode (14). It’s a shame because that story looked very cool, but at least the first two stories can still be enjoyed.

* Original title: 新七色仮面 (Shin nana iro kamen)
* Director: Toshiro Suzuki
* Chiba’s role: Starring Role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)

G.I. Samurai

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G.I. Samurai (Japan, 1979)

Sonny Chiba revived his modern action formula from the late 60s / early 70s in this major action film produced by Haruki Kadokawa. It was a new era, however. Gone were the days of Toei’s modestly budgeted production line films, replaced by Kadokawa’s highly commercial production strategy which involved major monetary investments and simultaneous multi format merchandise releases (film, pamphlet, theme songs, novel etc.). The film was budgeted at over one billion yen, which was almost as much as Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980) and twice as much as Samurai Reincarnation (1981).

The clever action fantasy mixes science fiction with historical characters. Chiba stars as self defence forces commander whose platoon somehow gets thrown back in time to the 17th century. Luckily for them, all their weapons, equipment, and vehicles (including a helicopter and tank) get transported with them. They find themselves in the middle of a clan war between Nagao Kagetora (Isao Natsuyagi) and Shingen Takeda.

The generous budget has allowed Chiba to design a truckload of great stunt and action sequences. The final encounter between modern soldiers and the samurai is pure war where a tank and a helicopter are destroyed and dead enemies are counted in hundreds. There are some great stunts like Chiba hanging from a helicopter at the speed of 100 kilometres per hour, and Hiroyuki Sanada later climbing into and jumping from the same helicopter. Some of the stunts were filmed using camera attached to a helmet worn by Chiba.

Being a late 70s big budget film, the movie tones down the exploitation imagery somewhat compared to mid 70s. However, there is still a fair amount of violence, sexuality/nudity, unintentionally silly male bonding, and surprisingly dark themes regarding masculine desire for power and domination. Many of these darker shades were actually removed from the film’s butchered US theatrical release, which was cut by almost an hour. The original 139 min version is much preferable and doesn’t really lag despite the running time, except in the closing scene where the filmmakers needed to get closing theme ‘Endless Way’ played in its entirety. In terms of execution the film may not have the punch of Chiba’s best films, but as an action and stunt showcase it’s an entertaining ride.

* Original title: Sengoku jieitai (戦国自衛隊)
* Director: Kosei Sato
* Chiba’s role: Starring Role
* Film availability: Kadokawa SE DVD & BD (JP) (new master) (no subs), Kadokawa Standard DVD (JP) (old master) (no subs), BCI/Ronin Entertainment DVD (US) (new master), Adness DVD (US) (old master), Optimum DVD (UK) (new master) (cut for horse falls)

Hiroyuki Sanada

Hiroko Yakushimaru

Dead Angle

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Dead Angle (Japan, 1979)

154 minute, novel based crime drama about a sociopath businessman (Isao Natsuyagi) and his associates who cheat small businesses out of their money with shady contracts in the early 50s. It’s a pretty well acted and somewhat original film that nevertheless suffers from the late 70s / early 80s “mammoth disease” that came to plague Japanese cinema. Running time has been extended beyond the necessary point, and the emphasis has been shifted from action to character drama. Thankfully, here it works pretty well. Sonny Chiba has a small but decent supporting role as a small time mobster who becomes partners with the main character, doing some of his dirty work.

* Original title: Hakuchu no shikaku (白昼の死角)
* Director: Toru Murakawa
* Chiba’s role: Small Supporting Role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (JP) (no subs)

Chiba

Chiba

Chiba