Category Archives: Genre: War

Military Spy School

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Military Spy School (Japan, 1974)

Another take on the Nakano Spy School which trained spies during WWII. The students were taught aikido, ninjutsu, weapons, explosives, foreign languages etc. Sonny Chiba already starred in the superb 1968 action/noir Army Intelligence 33, which was based on the same topic. This 1970s version is less successful, despite a big name cast (Chiba, Bunta Sugawara, Isao Natsuyagi etc.). Director Junya Sato adds more realism, but cuts down the action and loses the elegance of the ’68 version. This version is also more focused on the theme than any specific character, hence it doesn’t really have a main character. It’s not a bad movie, but one feel it should’ve been better considering the cast and interesting topic.

* Original title: ルパング島の奇跡 陸軍中野学校 (Lubang tô no kiseki: Rikugun Nakano gakkô)
* Director: Junya Sato
* Chiba’s role: Major Supporting Role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan)

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Army Intelligence 33

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Army Intelligence 33 (Japan, 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 officially focused on correspondence, but in reality trained top spies for the government. Chiba portrays a promising young soldier who is framed for murder, and forced to become a spy after being found guilty in military court.

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 diplomat. This is when the film takes a turn to a wonderful spy 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 young men forced to become spies 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 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.

* Original title: Rikugun choho 33 (陸軍諜報33)
* Director: Tsuneo Kobayashi
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Human Torpedoes

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Human Torpedoes (Japan, 1968)
Hiroyuki Matsukata plays the man who developed the Japanese human torpedo, a suicide weapon used in WWII. It’s an interesting topic and makes good cinema for the first 30 minutes, after which the film turns into to a typical human relationship war drama with melodramatic and nationalistic undertones. It gets a bit better again towards the end when the human torpedoes are put into use. Sonny Chiba appears briefly during the last 15 minutes as a submarine captain, looking cool and charismatic with beard. It’s too bad he only a has a couple of minutes of screen time, despite getting his name listed 3rd in the opening credits. The film would be much better if most of the middle third was cut out, and the focus was on developing and using the human torpedoes.

* Original title: Ningen gyorai: Âa kaiten tokubetsu kogetikai (人間魚雷 あゝ回天特別攻撃隊)
* Director: Shigero Ozawa
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Chiba on the left

Chiba in the middle

The Young Eagles of the Kamikaze

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The Young Eagles of the Kamikaze (Japan, 1968)
Like so many other kamikaze dramas from the 60s, this film opens with a long training sequence that sees the young solders getting yelled at and bullied by their superiors. As it goes on , they develop a bit of tension between each other, and are occasionally visited by a family member. There lies the problem with The Young Eagles of the Kamikaze; it’s all been seen before, and often done better than here. There is some nationalistic pathos but little energy to Shinji Murayama’s direction, and the film lacks interesting characters. At 110 minutes it’s also a good bit longer than it needs to be. The principal cast is made of relatively fresh faces, such as pop idol Teruhiko Saigo (Sing to Those Clouds, 1965), with big names like Koji Tsuruta and Tetsuro Tamba in supporting roles. Cute Reiko Ohara is the best thing about the film. Sonny Chiba is the 4th billed actor, but he only appears in one short scene. Fans of Chiba and war dramas alike would better turn their attention to superior films, such as Kaigun (1964) and Diaries of the Kamikaze (1967).

* Original title: Âa yokaren (あゝ予科練)
* Director: Shinji Murayama
* Chiba’s role: Cameo role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Diaries of the Kamikaze

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Diaries of the Kamikaze (Japan, 1967)
This is one of the better kamikaze dramas Toei put out in late 60s. These films are not well know abroad, as the subject matter made sure only the most pacifist masterpieces of Japanese war cinema found international distribution. Strictly commercial melodramas such as this remained domestic money makers. Hiroki Matsukata and Sonny Chiba star as two best friends who are drafted to the army and eventually become kamikaze pilots. While Matsukata is the number 1 star, Chiba has a pretty good supporting role. The all star cast is filled with big names, including Ken Takakura, Koji Tsuruta, Isao Natsuyagi, Bin Amatsu, and Junko Fuji. It’s a solid film with decent characters, good pace and a touching subject, though there are even better films in the genre, such as The Last Kamikaze (1970).

* Original title: Âa dôki no sakura (あゝ同期の桜)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

The Navy

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The Navy (Japan, 1963)
A tale of two best friends in the WWII era Japan. Takao (Sonny Chiba) is a young man enthusiastic about joining the navy to fight for his country. He convinces his best friend Shinji (Kinya Kitaoji) to join him. As it turns out, however, Takao’s poor health prevents him from entering the navy while his friend is chosen instead. As time goes by, Takao becomes a painter and changes his mind about the meaningfulness of war and fighting, while his friend goes the opposite path. Meanwhile Takao’s sister falls in love with Shinji. This is a well made war time drama with decent characters and good performances. It is especially enjoyable to see Chiba in a very atypical quiet drama role. This is by far one of his most restrained performances, yet his usual energy and youthful charm are constantly bubbling under. Although he is not the film’s main character – that is Shinji – his role is pretty major and easily the film’s best.

* Original title: Kaigun (海軍)
* Director: Shinji Murayama
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Young men eager to fight for their country

But only Kitaoji gets chosen

Disappointed Chiba…

who later finds a few life as an artist

unfortunately we do not get see when he drew that picture…

The Kamikazes

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The Kamikazes (Japan, 1962)
The 1960s saw Japanese war movies becoming popular mainstream hits, and subsequently drifting towards more nationalistic tones after a number of pacifist classics that had played to international recognition in the 1950s. The output ranged from harmless adventures to patriotic melodramas. The Kamikazes leans towards the latter, but it’s still a pretty decent movie most of the time. The film follows both kamikaze pilots and human torpedo pilots – the latter being a less commonly discussed but highly interesting topic. Some of the nationalistic emphasis drags the film down, but the battle scenes, both air and underwater, are highly effective. Sonny Chiba has a pretty big supporting role as a kamikaze pilot. It’s a solid performance, but not especially memorable.

* Original title: Minami taiheiyo nami takashi (南太平洋波高し)
* Director: Kunio Watanabe
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Video on Demand (Japan) (No subtitles)

Takakura as a submarine captain

Tetsuro Tamba is a human torpedo

Chiba

…who plays a kamikaze pilot

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 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.