Category Archives: Genre: Thriller

The Bullet Train

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The Bullet Train (Japan, 1975)

Toei anticipated Speed (1994) by nearly two decades with this excellent thriller. The film stars Ken Takakura as a criminal who plants a bomb on a bullet train and demands money from the government. If the speed falls below 80km / hour, the train will explode. The police do their best to track down the criminals without giving in to their demands, while the desperate train pilot (Sonny Chiba in a rare 1970s non-action role) is trying to keep his cool. Tension begins to rise among the uninformed passengers as the train skips its designated stops.

Director Junya Sato does fine job helming a character driven thriller, even if there are a couple of silly bits and too many flashbacks. The film’s biggest merit is the well crafted villains, whose acts are understandable though not acceptable. Takakura is very good at making his character human. Action scenes are few, but expertly executed. The ultra-funky 1970s score feels out of place at first, but once you get used to it, you can’t imagine the movie without it. Supporting roles feature a whole variety of stars from Takashi Shimura to Etsuko Shihomi, Yumi Takigawa, and Tetsuro Tamba, sometimes only getting a few seconds of screen time. Chiba has limited screen time, but it’s nice to have him in the film.

Interestingly, 1975 saw the release of not one but two bullet train thrillers. The other was Yasuzo Masumura’s Toho release Dômyaku rettô, in which noisy bullet trains are seen as industrial monsters upsetting peace and tradition. In that film, too, activist/terrorists threaten to destroy a speeding bullet train unless the government gives in to their demands. Suffering from a silly premise and underwhelming climax, Dômyaku rettô was certainly the lesser of the two bullet train films released that year.

* Original Title: Shinkansen daibakuha (新幹線大爆破)
* Director: Junya Sato
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: Twilight Time BD (US) (Upcoming), IVL DVD (R3 HK), Subkultur BD (DE) (no Eng subs), Optimum DVD (UK)

The original English dubbed US release was cut down to around 115 minutes, and should be avoided. The uncut version runs 152 minutes (NTSC).

Takakura

Chiba

Shihomi

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Tokyo Seoul Bangkok Drug Triangle

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Tokyo Seoul Bangkok Drug Triangle (Japan/Korea/Thailand/Hong Kong, 1973)

Sonny Chiba stars in this major Asian co-production based on the thoughts and ideas of the anti drugs/prostitution/sexually transmitted diseases campaigning businessman / political figure Tsusai Sugawara, who had previously inspired the two Narcotics / Prostitution G-Men films (1972). Tokyo Seoul Bangkok was a loose follow-up, with Chiba playing an ordinary man instead of a narcotics detective, and the storyline taking place in four Asian countries: Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan. Co-stars came from each country, and multiple edits of the film were produced for different markets.

The film opens in South-Korea, with truck driver Chiba arriving Seoul to receive his dead sister’s ashes. While there, he discovers the death may not have been an accident after all, and has something to do with international drug smuggling. Chiba receives help from a Korean detective (Choi Bong, delivering the film’s only martial arts moves) to track down his sister’s runaway gangster husband (Hiroki Matsukata) and his Korean lover (Kim Chang-Suk). The chase takes Chiba first to Hong Kong and eventually Thailand, where Chiba hooks up with a bilingual woman (Nora Miao) and a local tough guy (Chaiya Suliyun).

Tokyo Seoul Bangkok has long been a sought-after movie for its fantastic cast, but those few who have seen it have sometimes been left a bit underwhelmed. This is more due to false expectations than the film, although the latter is also at fault. Tokyo Seoul Bangkok is not a martial arts movie, and it’s not even very much an action movie as the filmmakers aim for more realistic crime drama/thriller. While that’s quite fine, it is also true that with the level of action talent involved, the viewer can’t help but to wish there were some more outrageous action sequences. This is especially true when some of the scenarios are, in fact, a little too wild to feel entirely realistic. Also, as a drug thriller, it is not as good as for example A Narcotics Agent’s Ballad (1972).

On the positive side, the storyline is very good and the film remains interesting from start to finish. Locations are well used, especially in the Thai sequences, which are both exotic and atmospheric. This is partly due to the beautiful score by Ichiro Araki, which is also used to create some powerful images when the camera lingers on Chiba’s desperate, badly bruised face. The supporting cast is interesting as well, the real stand outs being Nora Miao and Hiroki Matsukata. The latter’s portrayal of an ultra-stylish gangster may be at odds with the film’s intended realism, but he’s so cool the viewer won’t mind. The same can be said about one great action sequence in Thailand.

There’s a lot of history to the production. First of all, it was the first film Chiba made after finishing the Key Hunter TV series (1968-1973), marking the beginning of a new era on his career that allowed a stronger focus on films. Tokyo Seoul Bangkok was also one of the two major drug trafficking themed Asian co-productions that had been planned for 1973, the other having been The Shrine of the Ultimate Bliss. The latter was to star Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba and George Lazenby, but by the time Chiba arrived Hong Kong, Lee had just passed away (the project was eventually completed in heavily modified form and with a new cast as “Stoner”). It is likely (but unconfirmed) that the planned meeting between Chiba and Lee was scheduled to take place while Tokyo Seoul Bangkok was filming in Hong Kong.

The Lee connection is probably the reason why the film co-stars Nora Miao, whose open cleavage may come as a delightful surprise to the fans of her Hong Kong films. It’s a lot of fun to see Chiba and Miao act together, although the kiss suggested by one of the promotional stills is not found in the film, at least not in the Japanese cut (which is the only cut is available at the moment). If it did take place, it would surely make Miao the only woman in the world who has kissed both Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba!

Tokyo Seoul Bangkok Drug Triangle is a fascinating, even if slightly underwhelming piece of cinema that can be quite enjoyable when approached with realistic expectations. It’s not the lost action classic some wished it to be, but it’s an atmospheric and entertaining crime drama with a good storyline.

* Original title: Mayaku baishun G-Men: Kyofu no niku jigoku (Tokyo-Seoul-Bangkok: Jitsuroku Mayaku Chitai)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Choi Bong

Matsukata

Chaiya Suliyun and Nora Miao

Narcotics/Prostitution G-Men: Terrifying Flesh Hell

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Narcotics/Prostitution G-Men: Terrifying Flesh Hell (Japan, 1972)

An entertaining, but a slightly underwhelming sequel to A Narcotics Agent’s Ballad dispatches undercover cop Chiba to Okinawa. The poster and title suggests of sexploitation, but that is in fact just advertising promises. In reality the film tones down the sex and nudity from the first film and focuses more on narcotics than prostitution. Unfortunately the film also lacks the tension and superb characterization of the first film. This one is more of a basic cops vs. thugs flick, with Chiba teaming up with local cop Tsunehiko Watase and befriending dark skinned, half-Japanese small time goon (Ken Sanders). The Okinawa location brings some colour to the production, including a lot of foreign faces (amusingly always presented as criminals!) but is not as well used as you’d wish. That’s not saying it’s a bad film, though, quite the contrary. While unable to live up to its predecessor, it’s a fast paced crime film with solid tech credits, occasional sex and violence, and Chiba smoking three lung cancers’ worth of tobacco.

This was the last of the two Narcotics/Prostitution G-Men films; however, next year there was a movie called Tokyo Seoul Bangkok Drug Triangle. Chiba played a different character, but the film was again based on Tsusai Sugawara’s anti narcotics/prostitution campagn, making it a loosely linked follow-up for the two Narcotics/Prostitution G-Men films.

* Original title: Mayaku baishun G-Men: Kyofu no niku jigoku (麻薬売春Gメン 恐怖の肉地獄)
* Director: Shin Takakuwa
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: None (review format: TV)

A Narcotics Agent’s Ballad

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A Narcotics Agent’s Ballad (Japan, 1972)

This terrific, atmospheric neo noir is one of Chiba’s finest films. The gritty crime movie kicks off from a gangster run sex club where one of the customers is murdered. It turns out the victim is a policeman. Older detective Yamamoto (Asao Sano) and his partner Tamura (Hiroshi Miyauchi) begin investigating, only to find out Yamamoto’s own daughter is involved in a prostitution ring. Yamamoto kills himself and his daughter, leaving Tamura alone with the case.

Tamura later crosses paths with Kikuchi (Chiba), a narcotics detective so deep undercover that it’s no longer clear on which side of the law he is operating. Kikuchi’s wife awaits at home while he’s working his way deeper into the underworld by hanging out with pimps and drug dealers, and having one night stands heroin addicts. His real identity kept secret even from the police.

Director Shin Takakuwa does excellent job helming the film. He goes for character driven crime drama supported by a terrific screenplay. There’s a lot of attention given not only to the main characters, but also their loved ones, and how their work affects everyone around them. Pitting Chiba and Miyauchi against each other works especially well. The bets keep getting bigger as the film goes on until the tension reaches a hair-rising level towards the end. Action scenes are few, but very well executed. An atmospheric score by Toshiaki Tsushima (Battles without Honor and Humanity; The Street Fighter) completes the package.

The film was based in an idea by senior businessman Tsusai Sugawara, who had been campaigning against drugs, prostitution and sex diseases in Japan. Sugawara himself plays Chiba’s superior in the film. Fear not the filmmakers going soft due to his involvement: A Narcotic’s Agent’s Ballad is gritty and borderline sleazy 70s crime cinema with no happy ending, very much comparable to Kinji Fukasaku’s films in content and quality.

* Original title: Mayaku baishun G-Men (麻薬売春Gメン)
* English aka: Narcotics/Prostitution G-Men.
* Director: Shin Takakuwa
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: None (review format: TV)

Memoir of Japanese Assassins

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Memoir of Japanese Assassins (Japan, 1969)

This is an odd beast in Sonny Chiba’s filmography, a powerful political thriller that chronicles real life assassinations from Japan’s recent history. The film opens with a seemingly endless cavalcade of violent assassinations, with superstars like Ken Takakura, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Bunta Sugawara popping up just for a few minutes in their own segments to cut off someone’s head, stab someone to death, or blow someone into pieces.

About 20 minutes into the film the storyline has finally reached the early 1930s, with Sonny Chiba standing in front of the court, accused of terrorism. This is when the bloodshed finally comes to an end. For the next 100 minutes there would not be a single killing as the film takes its time to show how an ordinary young man (Chiba) grew into a political assassin.

Chiba’s character, Sho Onuma, is an ill but loyal employee at a factory whose honest owner is driven to a bankruptcy by corrupt officials. Chiba is left without a job, and soon later his love interest dies from an illness. Following a failed suicide attempt, Chiba films a new home with a charismatic priest (Chiezo Kataoka). The man is Nissho Inoue, whom the world would later come to know as the leader of the ultra nationalist League of Blood organization.

At 142 minutes, Memoir of Japanese Assassins packs quite a bit of interesting philosophical discussions on terrorism and offers a provocative, non-judgemental view on its extremist characters. It would be easy to see it as an ultra-rightist political statement, but that wasn’t director Sadao Nakajima’s intention according to his own words. In facts, he has expressed his disappointment over such interpretations. I tend to believe him as the film comes out much less a rightist statement than general antipathy for corruption and exploitation of the weak. It also helps that more than 40 years have passed since the film was made.

That being said, it should be noted that nearly all historical figures killed in the film – that is daimyo Naosuke Ii, statesman Toshimichi Okubo, politician Shigenobu Okuma, communications minister Toru Hoshi, prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, and businessmen Zenjiro Yasuda, Junnosuke Inoue, and Dan Takuma – had something to do with the Japanese government’s attempts to modernize Japan and open the country to foreign influences. The February 26 Incident, which is also covered in the film, also aimed at bringing down a Western-minded government. Those such political connections are never explicitly stated in the film, most audiences at the time would surely have been aware of them.

What added to the films volatility was that its protagonist, Sho Onuma, was still alive as consulted the filmmakers (he had been sentenced for life, but pardoned in 1940). The Japanese Liberal Democrat Party tried to halt the film production and managed to censor parts of the final act, which contains passages from February 26 Incident leader Asaichi Isobe’s diary. Toei took advantage of the controversy, releasing a teaser trailer that showed Onuma on the set advising Chiba.

For Chiba Memoir of Japanese Assassins was no doubt what he had been looking for: a powerful crime drama with a very strong scrip and good characters. He had been in several mediocre crime dramas (North Sea Chivalry, 1967; The Tale of Kawachi Chivalry, 1967) where he tended to be best thing about an otherwise lazy production. In Memoir of Japanese Assassins Chiba gives one of his best performances, for which he won an acting award at the Kyoto Citizen Film Festival (Kyoto shimin eiga sai), where Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri was awarded the same year.

Director Nakajima was a highly uneven filmmaker who worked in almost any popular genre from pink films to samurai movies. Many of his movies are routine efforts, but some are genuinely inspired and well directed. Memoir of Japanese Assassins remains one of his best and most thoughtful films. Adding to the film’s strength is composer Isao Tomita’s epic score, which plays on repeat. The mix of politics, character drama and almost splatterific violence may be too much for some viewers, but for others this is an unpolished gem.

* Original title: Nihon ansatsu hiroku (日本暗殺秘録)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

The Escape

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The Escape (Japan, 1962)

* Original title: ni ni roku jiken: Dasshutsu (二・二六事件 脱出)
* Director: Tsuneo Kobayashi
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: Video on Demand (Japan) (No subtitles)

Please see my old review here:
https://sketchesofchiba.wordpress.com/2015/12/13/sonny-chiba-a-go-go-part-2/

Here are some still images from the film:

Takakura

Chiba

Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 7)

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Sonny Chiba Festival Day 7: July 4th (Friday)

Memoir of Japanese Assassins (Nihon ansatsu hiroku) (Sadao Nakajima, 1969)

Sadao Nakajima was one of Toei’s seminal genre film directors. He worked in almost any genre that was popular at the time, and delivered competent films that ranged from ninja adventures to sexploitation and yakuza movies. He had, however, also an urge to deliver something more ambitious, as evidenced by his surprising 1973 visit to Art Theatre Guild where he directed the gangster drama Aesthetics of a Bullet. Memoir of Japanese Assassins is another odd beast is his filmography. This all star political slaughter fest chronicles murders committed by assassins in different eras, all based on reality. Stars like Ken Takakura, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Bunta Sugawara pop up for their 5 minute episodes only to cut someone’s head off, stab someone to death or blow someone into pieces with a hand grenade.

The seemingly endless cavalcade of ultra-violent kills finally comes to an end about 25 minutes into the film. This is when the film finds its main story: an impressive tale of a young man slowly transforming into a political assassin. Sonny Chiba portrays this character; a youngster living in the middle of never ending poverty and misery. He eventually finds new home with a revolutionary group, which begins his long road to becoming a political assassin. This episode takes no less than 90 minutes of the film’s 142 minute running time, features almost no action or bloodshed, and gives Chiba more screen time than all the other stars combined.

Chiba is quite good in the leading role, despite slightly overdoing his most emotional scenes. He actually won an acting award for his performance at the Kyoto Citizen Film Festival (Kyoto shimin eiga sai), where Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri was also awarded the same year. Yakuza film queen Junko Fuji also appears in a seminal supporting role in this episode. Once their story concludes, the film still continues with two more short episodes (one of them featuring stock footage from the earlier Chiba film The Escape, 1962). As a whole the film is a bit uneven, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating and occasionally epic (partly thanks to composer Isao Tomita, whose score plays on repeat) movie. Easily recommended!


 

Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (Kiyoshi Nishimura, 1980)

The second film for Friday was a real rarity: the 1980 special effects extravaganza Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 (literally Tokyo Great Earthquake Magnitude 8.1). This generously budgeted TV film premiered on Nihon TV in 1980, and completely disappeared from the face of earth until it was screened in a special event in Tokyo last year. That screening was reportedly so popular that only a fraction of the willing customers were able to obtain a ticket. Cinema Vera gave the film no less than three screening days, during which it was seen from a relatively worn out 16 mm print, which would of course be the original format.

As the title suggests, it’s a disaster movie based on the premise of a giant earthquake hitting in Tokyo. This fear stems from real life: Tokyo has been destroyed by earthquakes several times, most recently in 1923 when more than 140 000 people died and over 400 000 buildings were destroyed. When it comes to Japanese cinema the genre may not seen very common – a couple of exceptions aside there aren’t many Japanese disaster movies – however, it closely relates to monster movies and other tokusatsu epics that have long traditions in Japan. It was a short way from giant monsters stamping Tokyo to a natural disasters creating similar cinematic destruction.

Indeed, a couple of shots in Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 seem so familiar that they just might be old Godzilla sets put into new use. That wouldn’t be surprising considering many of the filmmakers, including producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and special effects director Koichi Kawakita, and co-production company Toho, had their background in Godzilla films. The fine, even if obvious, miniature work is actually the best thing about the film. There are a couple of especially memorable scenes, like a passenger plane flying over Tokyo that has turned into a giant inferno, and dawn in the destroyed metropolis.

As a character drama Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 falls flat. All the usual clichés from helpless grandmother to dumb children and even animals escaping at the wrong moment are included, not to mention characters discussing how terrible it would be if an earthquake hit Tokyo just a few hours before it really happens. That is quite disappointing considering the film was directed by Kiyoshi Nishimura, who had helmed interesting thrillers and existential action films like The Creature Called Man (1970) and Hairpin Circus (1972) for Toho in the 1970s. Perhaps he just couldn’t help the screenplay.

Sonny Chiba plays the starring role; however, he doesn’t have much else to do than run back and forth in the special effects shots, and worry about supporting characters constantly getting in trouble. It’s not an especially physical role since most of the effects are make-believe. His most memorable scene involves blowing up a door while taking cover inside a safe. Yutaka Nakajima, who appeared in some earlier Chiba films like The Executioner (1974), plays the female lead, but her role is very forgettable as well. There are a few other supporting actors as well, but amusingly a great lack of extras. It seems the entire budget went to special effects since there are only a handful of people in Tokyo and they miraculously run into each other throughout the film.

Because of its rarity Tokyo Daijishin Magnitude 8.1 will remain to be sought after movie. It’s a decent special effects show that probably deserves to be seen by genre fans, especially for its nostalgia value, but it’s hardly a great movie. For fans of Chiba it’s passable viewing, but not among his most memorable roles.

As a side note; the film’s budget was 150 million yen, which was five times higher than the episode budget for the famous cop-action series Seibu Keisatsu (which is still fondly remembered for its insane action scenes full of car wrecking and explosions) that was screening on TV around the same time. By the 1980s many of the former actions stars, like Yujiro Ishihara, Tetsuya Watari, and Chiba himself were mostly working on TV. Chiba had already starred in hundred of TV episodes in various different shows since the 1960s, like Key Hunter (1967-1973) and The Bodyguard (1974). In the 1980s television became his primary employer as well. It was a great era of epic small screen action entertainment that often rivalled, and sometimes surpassed, the theatrical films. Nothing like it exists on Japanese TV anymore.

Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 4)

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Sonny Chiba Festival Day 4: June 21st (Saturday)

Saturday. Back in Tokyo after a few days of normal life. The festival kept running meanwhile, but I didn’t miss any movies because those were second or third screening days for films I had already seen during my last stint. My original plan was to land in Tokyo and first catch a couple of films in Jinbocho Theater before heading to Cinema Vera for only one Chiba film, but I ended up changing my plan and watching both of the evening’s Chibas.

Bullet Train (Shinkansen daibakuha) (Junya Sato, 1975)

My decision was a good one. Though I had seen Bullet Train – Junya Sato’s predecessor to Speed (1994) – before, I didn’t recall it being this good. The excellent thriller stars Ken Takakura as a criminal whose gang plants a bomb on a bullet train and demands money from the government. If the speed falls below 80km / hour, the train will explode. The police do their best to track down the criminals without giving in to their demands, while the desperate train pilot (Sonny Chiba in a rare 1970’s non-action role) is trying to keep his cool. Tension begins to rise among passengers as the train skips its designated stops.

Sato was a solid director who was usually more interested in storylines than exploitation (there are some exceptions, though). Here he does fine job helming a character and story driven thriller, even if there are a couple of silly turns and too many flashbacks used as storytelling device. The film’s biggest merit is its well crafted villains, whose acts are understandable though not acceptable. Takakura does excellent job making his character human, and becomes the film’s central character despite being the villain. Action scenes are few, but expertly executed. The ultra-funky 1970s score feels out of place at first, but eventually becomes a seminal part of the film and makes one wish all good movies had one like this. Supporting roles feature a whole variety of stars from Takashi Shimura to Etsuko Shihomi and Yumi Takigaw, sometimes only getting a few seconds of screen time.

Hepcat in the Funky Hat (Funky Hat no kaidanji) (Kinji Fukasaku, 1961)

The evening’s second movie was one of Chiba’s very first starring roles: Hepcat in the Funky Hat. This energetic little movie was the third collaboration between Chiba and director Kinji Fukasaku. The two had already made two Drifting Detective movies together, the first one being Fukasaku’s directorial debut and Chiba’s first starring role. Fukasaku and Chiba then went on to work together a total of 20 times. When Chiba made his own directorial debut with Yellow Fangs (1990) Fukasaku served as his advisor.

Chiba plays a happy-go-lucky son of a detective, who constantly manages to get himself in the middle of someone else’s trouble, but comes out saving the day. Chiba is full of youthful energy, does some athletics, tries to charm the ladies (without much luck), and kicks a little bit of ass. Some of his goofier acts resemble Hong Kong stars like Alexander Fu Sheng in their more comedic roles in the 1970’s – whether that’s a good thing or not is debatable.

Hepcat in the Funky Hat also showcases the madcap energy Fukasaku later become famous for. The cinematography is wild and innovative, edits come fast and dialogue is delivered at lightning pace. There’s a striking difference between this and some other detective films of the same era, like the Police Department Story films in which Chiba co-starred the same year, or even Fukasaku’s own Drifting Detective films. Hepcat in the Funky Hat runs less than an hour and was originally played as a b-feature for a bigger budgeted a-film, but would probably have been at least 20 minutes longer in the hand of any other director.

In addition, the film deals with the theme Fukasaku explored throughout his career: youth vs. older generations. Having lived through the horrors of war and having felt betrayed by the nation and the older generations, this theme got increasingly violent cinematic incarnations in Fukasaku’s later classics like Under the Flag of the Rising Sun (1972), Battles without Honour and Humanity (1973) and Battle Royale (2000), where army, yakuza and the government respectively took to roles of rotten authorities. Hepcat in the Funky Hat, however, is a celebration of youthful energy, passion, and early 1960’s youth culture. Its young heroes leave the old men eating dust at every turn!

Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 3)

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Sonny Chiba Festival Day 3: June 16th (Monday)

Army Intelligence 33 (Rikugun choho 33) (Tsuneo Kobayashi, 1968)

Sonny Chiba waves good bye to serious war dramas in this criminally neglected mixture of spy-noir and kick-ass commando action. The film is loosely based on the Nakano Spy School which operated in Tokyo during the Second World War. It was officially focused on correspondence, but in reality trained top spies for the government.

Chiba portrays a promising young soldier who is kidnapped and forced to become a spy. After receiving a tough training in martial arts, weapons, explosives, and foreign languages (by Tetsuro Tanba), he is sent for his first mission, which is to gather secret information from a foreign ambassador. This is when the film takes a turn to a wonderful noir with gorgeous cinematography, great old fashioned score and terrific atmosphere. Chiba himself looks fabulous in long dark coat and black hat which immediately bring American noir stars like Humphrey Bogart to mind. This is one of those many things foreign fans never expected to find in Chiba’s filmography.

Army Intelligence 33 isn’t entirely a spy noir, though. The final act sees Chiba sent for a Lee Marvin style commando mission to South East Asia together with his partner in crime Kenji Imai. The action packed final third can’t quite compare with the wonderful noir section, but it’s a tremendously entertaining climax nevertheless.

The only weakness is occasional lazy screenwriting throughout the film, which has us believe that these kidnapped young men would barely protest their destiny, and the enemy soldiers whose behaviour isn’t always all that logical. This is however a small gripe in a hugely entertaining film. Chiba later returned to the same training camp in another Nakano Spy School influenced film: Military Spy School (Junya Sato, 1974). That film, however, couldn’t compare with the far more elegant and entertaining Army Intelligence 33, which remains one of Chiba’s best movies. A real gem waiting to be discovered.

Jail Breakers (The Escape Game) (Dasso yugi) (Kosaku Yamashita 1976)

Jail Breakers, or The Escape Game (literal translation) is another rarely seen movie that has probably never been released outside Japan. It hasn’t been preserved so well in its native country either; no DVD release available and even the festival print was in such a shape that it could have fallen apart any time. The caper-style movie stars Chiba as the worst behaving prisoner of all time: he has 31 prison escapes under his belt.

Chiba makes his 32nd run in the film’s opening scene by performing a spectacular escape by climbing to the roof, grabbing to ladders from a helicopter, hanging from the ladders in in the air while the helicopter makes its way through the countryside, and changes his clothes in the mid-air before dropping to a moving truck and making the escape by then jumping to another moving vehicle – one of the many stunts on Chiba’s career that his greatest fan, Jackie Chan, later improved upon (Police Story 3, 1992).

The film is packed with nice stunts throughout, but the screenplay could be better. After escaping the prison Chiba teams up with a bunch of thugs, who design prison escapes for money. Unfortunately trust and loyalty are unknown concepts to these men who take turns deceiving each other. The endless “who’s-cheating-who” game has been done better in other films, and sometimes the writing is downright sloppy: when a carefully planned escape operation fails, Chiba simply steals a fire engine and drives away without anyone noticing!

It also feels that director Kosaku Yamashita, who made his name with yakuza films, was a bit out of his element here. However, even with these weaknesses it’s an entertaining action comedy which compares favourably against some of the later, similar Yasaku Matsuda films like Execution Game (1978) and No Grave for Us (1979). It’s also essentially a family friendly affair with no sex whatsoever, and only minimal violence. The focus is on stunts and comedy.

Opening escape. Over 3 minutes of it was shot in single take just to show you it’s really Chiba doing it all.

Sonny Chiba A Go Go (Part 2)

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Sonny Chiba Festival Day 1: June 14th (Part 2: The Films)

From here on it’s going to be film mini-reviews all the way. The films screened during the first day were The Executioner 2: Karate Inferno and G.I. Samurai. Neither one of them was quite the typical Chiba film.

The Executioner 2: Karate Inferno (Chokugeki jigoku-ken: Dai-gyakuten) (Teruo Ishii, 1974)

Karate Inferno is best described as an act of terrorism. Director Teruo Ishii was never keen on making karate movies, but the studio had him direct one with The Executioner (1974). The mismatch resulted in an exceptionally sleazy action fest that was probably more enjoyable than Ishii ever intended it to be. To his shock, it was a commercial success and Toei had him direct a sequel, which Ishii turned into a madcap comedy (there was a similar case with biker gang movies only one year later, when Toei had Ishii direct a sequel for Detonation: Violent Violent Riders, and Ishii turned it into a love story with musical scenes).

Karate Inferno is essentially a comedic caper in which the same gang we know from the original film are supposed to save a kidnapping victim, but when the deal goes bad they decide to rob their employer instead. Most of the film consists of Chiba (asshole ninja), Makoto Sato (asshole ex-cop) and Eiji Go (asshole pervert) taking the piss and molesting Yutaka Nakajima while also planning a big diamond heist. In the film’s highlight we see Chiba saving his pall, whose jacket was caught on fire, by pissing on him!

The jokes are crude but funny, the soundtrack is fantastic, and there’s some great action at the end of the film. The Japanese audience had a blast, even clapping hands during the film in a couple of highlights, which is extremely rare in Japan. Many of the jokes are film references, though, and may not be understood by most foreign viewers (e.g. Kanjuro Arashi appearing as the same character he plays in Ishii’s Abashiri Prison series – Chiba also appeared in the 4th and 6th film).

G.I. Samurai (Sengoku jieitai) (Kosei Saito, 1979)

G.I. Samurai is a very different type of film compared to Karate Inferno. This big budget action fantasy stars Chiba as an army commander whose platoon somehow gets thrown back in time to the 1600s. Luckily for them, all their weapons, equipment, and vehicles (including helicopter and a tank) come with them. The heavy artillery comes in need when they get involved in a clan war between two historical figures: Nagao Kagetora (Isao Natsuyagi) and Shingen Takeda. It’s time to show the samurai what a modern man is made of!

While G.I. Samurai doesn’t have the kick of Chiba’s best movies, it’s nevertheless full of major action scenes, huge body count, historical characters in entirely fictional situations, and more serious themes about masculine desire for power and domination.

There’s a lot that springs from the 1970’s exploitation film mentality, but at the same time the film also showcases a new era in Japanese filmmaking. The film was produced by Kadokawa, who was a new player in the filmmaking biz. Up till late 1970s Chiba had been working for Toei, who mass produced cheap genre films at rapid pace. Kadokawa, however, were making modern Hollywood-like productions. Their films were often accompanied by theme songs, novels and other supporting products. The amount of money invested in G.I. Samurai – ¥ 1,350,000,000 – would probably have financed a dozen Street Fighter flicks. Also look for numerous cameos, like Hiroyuki Sanada climbing to a helicopter, and the soon-to-be super-idol Hiroko Yakushimaru as a child warrior.


 

Sonny Chiba Festival Day 2: June 15th

The Escape (Niniroku jiken: dasshutsu) (Tsuneo Kobayashi, 1962)

The first film for Sunday night was the rarely seen The Escape. This was one of the many Japanese films based on the infamous February 26th Incident that took place in 1936. The incident involved army rebel forces attempting a coup d’état in Tokyo. The rebels opposed to Japan’s modern policies and believed that the Emperor had been misled by politicians. To restore Japan’s past glory they gathered hundreds of men and attempted multiple simultaneous political assassinations. One of their attacks was the raid on the prime minister’s house. Nearly 300 rebels took part in it; however, the prime minister managed to hide and eventually escape.

The film focuses on the military police’s (partly fictionalized, no doubt) attempts to rescue the minister before the rebels find out he is still alive. He manages to hide in a closet because the enemy mistakes a dead body that greatly resembles him as him. The military police now tries to get him out without the rebels realizing what’s going on. It’s a mostly dialogue driven affair with exciting action in the beginning and end of the film. Sonny Chiba plays only a small supporting role as a soldier who discovers the prime minister’s hiding place, but agrees to help the military police. The real star of the film is Ken Takakura. An entertaining military / caper mix, but not a classic film.

 

Bodyguard Kiba (Ryuichi Takamori, 1973)

The 1973 action thriller Bodyguard Kiba is one of Chiba’s weaker efforts. The film stars Chiba as a Japanese karate fighter taking on the mafia, all in the name of promoting karate. It’s a pretty messy storyline that nevertheless allows for some memorable ultra-violence and enjoyable spaghetti western influences. Action scenes are, however, sloppily filmed.

One of the film’s biggest merits may actually be featuring the 16 year old Etsuko Shihomi as a stunt double for Yayoi Watanabe (who plays Chiba’s sister). In the superior sequel, Bodyguard Kiba 2 (1973) Shihomi inherited the role, which marked her first acting role in a movie. Another thing worth mentioning is that the film is based on the manga Bodyguard Kiba, which was influenced by Chiba’s real life master Masutatsu Oyama. Although names have been changed, when Chiba’s character speaks of his master in the film, he is actually referring to Oyama and his real life adventures. Oyama also makes a cameo during the opening credits.

Bodyguard Kiba is better known in its international form under the title The Bodyguard (1976). The American version changes the storyline somewhat, with almost all karate philosophy and Oyama references removed. In that version Chiba is simply fighting crime when not filming movies (yes, he actually plays himself in the US version!). In the Japanese version Chiba’s character actually comes out as a bigger asshole, not least because of the new ending scene where he seems to have forgotten about all the casualties and tells the press how this whole massacre was great advertisement for karate. The US version is missing the ending scene.

There are, however, some highly amusing added scenes in the US version. These include the famous Ezekiel speech that Quentin Tarantino quoted in Pulp Fiction, US martial artists Aaron Banks and Bill Louie discussing who’s a tougher guy: Sonny Chiba or Bruce Lee, and a modified opening credits sequence accompanied by Viva! Chiba! Viva! Chiba! chanting.