Category Archives: Genre: TV Show

Emergency Line

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Emergency Line (Japan, 1976)

The last of the mid-70 action/detective shows with Sonny Chiba, this one makes an immediate impression with its grit and darkness. It’s the usual ‘group of detectives’ (Chiba, Shihomi, Tani, Masaaki Daimon, Tamio Kawachi, Seigo Inoue, Yuriko Hishimi) pattern, but without jokes. The opening episode has a bitter war vet (Eiji Okada) trying to assassinate a foreign little girl flown to Japan for medical operation, and another story has Chiba, taking a bullet in his leg in the first scene, trying to penetrate a top floor condo where the shooter is holding hostages. There are also smaller delights like usual yakuza crook Eiji Go quest starring as a narcotics cop, and Toei’s regular evil gaijin Osman Yusuf as murderous diplomat in an episode that concludes with one of Chiba’s most explosive karate sequences as Chiba decides to ignore diplomatic immunity and fight his way though 20 bodyguards. Another stunt highlight involves Chiba chasing criminals. After his car falls off the cliff (!), he climbs on top of a train, then jumps down when the train is crossing a bridge, landing on the moving car’s roof, only to slip, grab the rear bumper, pull out his gun and shoot the tires. Bravo! As usual, Chiba and Japan Action Club were in charge of the action.

Not every episode is as exciting as those, though. Despite having more action than Blazing Dragnet, this is the most talkative of the four shows. There are also a couple of dullish drama/thriller stories, and Etsuko Shihomi is largely wasted in a role that offers her little to do. The rest of the cast is ok, with Tani, who has developed some charisma since Key Hunter (1968-1973) faring the best. The episodes take a bit of patience since they often reveal the gist only at the end, which is interesting but a bit odd since these aren’t strictly mystery stories. The show’s ending is exceptionally powerful and each episode closes with a beautiful theme song and closing credits montage. Gritty and atmospheric, this is a very worthy closing product for Chiba’s detective show streak.

* Original title: Daihijosen (大非常線)
* Director: Various
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Series availability: None / Review format: TV

Detectives. Eiji Go on the left.

The series really is quite gritty

Chiba’s had it

Osman Yusuf. This episode features the best role I’ve seen him in. I’ve really become a bit of a fan. He was born in the Ottoman Empire in 1920 but moved to Japan at a young age (his younger brother Osman Toruko was born in Japan and become a Japanese professional wrester). He was working on TV and movies since the 1940s, although all the roles I’ve seen him in (60s and 70s) have been small roles. He died in 1982.

Stunt action

Find Chiba in the frame!

Shihomi and Tani

Chiba and Shihomi

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Blazing Dragnet

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Blazing Dragnet (Japan, 1975-1976)

The third series in Sonny Chiba’s mid-70s streak of action packed detective shows, following The Bodyguard (1974) and The Gorilla Seven (1975), all produced for NTV where Chiba had his on TV slot in 1974-1976. This follows the usual Japanese cop series pattern with a team of detectives as the focus, also utilized in the previous two shows, with a slight new twist. The detectives now belong to a secret mobile unit, all having dull day jobs (Chiba and Hayato Tani are office clerks, Shihomi and Gajiro Sato traffic officers) as a cover and just waiting for a call by boss Nobuo Kaneko to jump in a travel van and head where ever crime is taking place.

This is the least action packed of the four shows, investing more on decently written detective storylines, though there are occasional shootouts and karate kicks by Chiba and Shihomi. An entertaining show, easily better than The Gorilla Seven, despite ultimately underutilizing the mobile police concept and not featuring anything unforgettable. Chiba’s beautiful theme is one of the show’s assets, always restoring the viewer’s hope even after a weaker episode as the song plays over end credit montage of Chiba wandering on city streets.

* Original title: Moeru sosamo (燃える捜査網)
* Director: Various
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (no subs) (June 2018) / Review format: TV

Kaneko briefing Chiba

Team meeting

Chiba and Tani in their day jobs

Tani on the job

Chiba kicking some ass

Shihomi kicking some ass

Occasional excellent cinematography

Gajiro Sato (Dragon Princess) restraining his usual comedy act. He’s a bit silly but doesn’t do anything too irritating here.

End credits montage

last but not least!

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

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

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)

The Bodyguard

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The Bodyguard (Japan, 1974) [TV]

Not to be confused with the unrelated Bodyguard Kiba (aka The Bodyguard) films, this karate packed TV series is an undiscovered gem that features some of Sonny Chiba’s best action. Chiba stars as a member of a private bodyguard company established by Ko Nishimura (the priest from Lady Snowblood), brought to Japan after hammering a roomful of Arab villains to death in Middle East. His colleagues are played by karate girl Etsuko Shihomi, Chiba’s brother Jiro Chiba, young nice guy Yuuki Meguro, and dirty fellow lone wolf Yoji Takagi who occasionally joins the gang.

The series, produced briefly after the release of the first Street Fighter film, is basically combination of martial arts action and traditional Japanese detective series format where we often had a group of 4-5 detectives solving crimes. Although not strictly a martial arts series, for these guys karate is usually the solution to any problem, and the action only gets better and more frequent as the series advances. Most episodes feature at least one fight, but many feature two or three fights.

Chiba is fantastic in the series. The fights ar as good as in his films, and are always clearly filmed without shaky camera. They are little short, though. And while the series may lack the excessive bloodletting and sex of Chiba’s mid 70’s films, the action looks and sounds painful. It also says something about the series’ grittiness that a lot of the time the bodyguards fail to keep their client alive till the end. Adding to the effect is a fantastic, badass score.

The 18 year old Shihomi makes perhaps an even bigger impression than Chiba. She has never looked as cute and energetic as she does here kicking guys in the face. She doesn’t get any fights in the early episodes, but becomes a major attraction later on. It’s pretty difficult to curb your enthusiasm when an episode title that roughly translates as “The Roaring Female Dragon of Hokkaido” appears on screen and a miscellaneous bunch of martial arts villains that look like the cast of Sister Street Fighter (released towards the end of the show’s production) are introduced. Hell yeah!

Jiro Chiba gets his share of action as well, and while Yuuki Meguro is not a fighter he turns out to be a sympathetic young guy in suit. Yoji Takagi isn’t too bad either although it takes a while to warm up to him. Guest stars include Pinky Violence actresses Reiko Ike, Ryoko Ema, Yukie Kagawa, and Yumi Takigawa, Roman Porno starlets Yuri Yamashina and Moeko Ezawa, kick boxing legend Tadashi Sawamura, and of course Chiba & Shihomi’s eternal karate nemesis Masashi Ishibashi.

If there is something negative about the series it the uneven and mostly unremarkable writing. Most storylines are decidedly routine, save for a few stand outs. There are also episodes that try too much with drama at the expense of action (e.g. the closing episode), and one rather unbearable comedic episode. Generally speaking the series is relatively free of comedy, except for some funny dialogue between Nishimura and older lady Izumi Yukimura (the owner of a tiny fashion shop operating in the same premises with the bodyguard office). However, in episode 16 some idiot came up with the idea of switching Yukimura for a hyperactive comedic young woman (the actress is credited as “Beaver”). Thankfully she only causes damage to a couple of episodes.

Despite its flaws, The Bodyguard is one of the seminal karate products of the mid 70s. For a Chiba fan it’s a truly exciting discovery that deserves far wider recognition than it has been getting.

* Original title: The Body-Guard / Za bodigaado (ザ・ボディガード)
* Director: Kazuyoshi Yoshikawa, Hideo Tanaka, Koichi Takemoto, Yasuo Furuhata etc.
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Availability: Toei DVD (to be released May 2017) (no subs). Review format: TV.

Chiba and Nishimura

Etsuko Shihomi and Jiro Chiba

Shihomi and Yuuki Meguro

Shihomi kicking arse

Shihomi vs. Masashi Ishibashi

Chiba being his usual mean self

This double-episode was shot in the US

Chiba being mean in Nevada

Jiro Chiba

Yuri Yamashina

Reiko Ike

Tadashi Sawamura

Shihomi!

Key Hunter

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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

Screencaps part 1: black & white episodes (1-104)
Tamba with a blonde girl in the opening episode (directed by Kinji Fukasaku)

The whole team.

Chiba and Tamba looking cool as hell

Chiba looking cool as hell

Although not a martial arts series, Chiba also threw in a few fights

Chiba has to attend a car race in disguise instead of a race driver who is being targeted by assassins.

Key Hunter screencaps part 2: colour episodes (105-262)

A German boy is preparing the return of the Third Reich in Japan

Insane Chiba stunt

Another insane Chiba stunt. That is really him, not a doll.

Unfortunately the show also features this kind of silliness

Thankfully also this kind of coolness