Category Archives: Role: Major Supporting

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

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Honor of Japan

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Honor of Japan (Japan, 1977)

This was a sort of companion piece to the Godfather of Japan trilogy (1977-1978), which director Sadao Nakajima put out around the same time, to the extent that it shared some of the same advertising taglines. All of the films were talkative, story-heavy films about organized criminality, featuring a dozen central characters in each film and mostly lacking the hectic energy of the mid-70s yakuza films. They are, despite their ambition, a sad example of where the genre was heading: towards pretentious “serious crime cinema” that emphasized pseudo-epic storylines over mayhem despite not having especially interesting storylines in the first place. Honor of Japan works best during its few violent shoot outs, and when it pits yakuza stars Bunta Sugawara and Sonny Chiba against each other, but like the Godfather of Japan films it suffers from a slow-moving and not all that engaging storyline.

* Original title: Nihon no jingi (日本の仁義)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Yakuza War: The Japanese Godfather

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Yakuza War: The Japanese Godfather (Japan, 1977)

By 1977 the jitsuroku yakuza film genre was nearly dead. Kinji Fukasaku released his final yakuza films that year, while his colleague Sadao Nakajima still went on for a few more years, but the films weren’t getting any better. Ultra violence and documentary style gangster films just weren’t the big thing anymore, and the producers were telling filmmakers to try and appeal to female audiences. Violence was cut down, more drama was written into the storylines and running times were extended to make the films bigger. Novels were often used as source material. It was the beginning of the end.

The Japanese Godfather is a sort of transitional film. It runs way too long at 132 minutes, but at the same time it still retains some of the ruthless violence and graphic sex that characterized the mid-70s yakuza films, including director Nakajima’s own Okinawa Yakuza War (1976). Highlights include manly man Bunta Sugawara pulling bullets out of his vest with his bare hands, and short tempered bodyguard Sonny Chiba yelling at a man and pulling him from the clothes AFTER unloading six bullets into his chest times.

Toei gathered basically every big name actor they could get for this film, and called it “30 years of Toei men” on the poster. Of course, there had been similar star gatherings before, but this time it felt more like an attempt to lure the audiences to the theatre one last time. The cast includes Sugawara, Chiba, Koji Tsuruta, Tsunehiko Watase, Mikio Narita, Hiroki Matsukata, Asao Koike, Tatsuo Umemiya, and many others. The sequel would add Toshiro Mifune to the cast. There was, of course, a certain charm to having all these guys in the same movie.

* Original title: Yakuza senso: Nihon no don (やくざ戦争 日本の首領)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Sonny China being a gentleman

Bunta Sugawara removing bullets from his west

Alan Delon, sorry, I mean Sonny Chiba, doing bodyguarding for Koji Tsuruta

Yakuza mobile

Hiroki Matsukata enjoying the view

Car on fire

Gangster meeting

Yakuza rests on the floor

Sonny Chiba grabbing a man by the chest AFTER shooting him six times!

Okinawa Yakuza War

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Okinawa Yakuza War (Japan, 1976)

This excellent jitsuroku yakuza film is based on the 4th Okinawa conflict which saw the local yakuza battle the mainland gangs after Okinawa was handed back to Japan in 1972. The conflict was still going on at the time the film was released, and fearing the film might add fuel to the fire, the Okinawan government banned it immediately. Sonny Chiba plays the most frightening character of his career as a psychotic mad dog yakuza with karate skills. The character is basically a combination of two earlier Chiba characters: Otomo from Hiroshima Death Match, and Tsurugi from The Street Fighter. The film’s real lead is Hiroki Matsukata, but Chiba steals every scene he’s in with his incredible over-the-top performance. The film does lose a bit of its energy when Chiba is not on screen, but it’s still a very solid and extremely violent genre film, just a notch behind Kinji Fukasaku’s films.

When the film played at the Sonny Chiba film festival in Tokyo in 2014, the print was in such poor shape that it could literally have fallen apart any moment. Bucket loads of frames were missing, including a long segment showing a central character’s death. Film preservers had, however, heroically managed to restore a 2 second bit of female star Maya Hiromi’s breasts to the middle of the missing segment.

* Original Title: Okinawa yakuza senso (沖縄やくざ戦争)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (JP) (No subs)

The Defensive Power of Aikido

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The Defensive Power of Aikido (Japan, 1975)

Sonny Chiba left the leading role to his brother Jiro in this excellent, though very loose martial arts biopic of Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba. For entertainment’s sake, the film focuses on Ueshiba’s somewhat reckless early years. Chiba himself shows up in a slightly villainous supporting role as a bodyguard for a no-good gang. He eventually cuts his ties with the gang, but only after accidentally injuring an innocent woman and feeling he must take responsibility about it.

This is one of the best Japanese martial arts films of the 70s, not only for excellent fights, but especially for Koji Takada’s screenplay, which uses themes of honour, brotherhood and conflict similar to old school yakuza films. Jiro Chiba pales in comparison to his brother, but he makes a decent lead and there is genuine spark in the fights between them. Etsuko Shihomi and Masafumi Suzuki appear in the film as well. Add a cool soundtrack by The Street Fighter composer Toshiaki Tsushima and you’ve got a highly recommended film. Interestingly enough, it’s also one of the least exploitative films in the genre, with no sex or nudity at all.

* Original Title: Gekitotsu! Aikido (激突!合気道)
* Director: Shigero Ozawa
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subs). Review format: 35mm.

Masafumi Suzuki and Jiro Chiba

Chiba

Shihomi

Sonny vs. Jiro

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)

Sister Street Fighter

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Sister Street Fighter (Japan, 1974)

Toei extended their winning formula to an unrelated but wonderfully entertaining sister series that gave the 18 year old Etsuko Shihomi her first starring role. The non-stop cavalcade of semi-sleaze and delightfully violent martial arts follows Shihomi battling a drug syndicate lead by a flamboyant madman (Bin Amatsu), whose “hobby” is beautiful women and evil martial arts masters. While not as fast as Chiba, Shihomi made an instant impression by performing all of her stunts and fighting. Chiba has a wonderful supporting role, and Masashi Ishibashi plays villain again. The lack of strong plot is the only real weakness. Just avoid the cut R-rated version, which was widely available on bootleg DVDs once upon a time, and is missing over 4 minutes of action and violence. Oh, and for those wondering why Shihomi’s character is Chinese; that’s because the role was originally written for Angela Mao.

Three sequels followed. Chiba did not return to the series, but Masashi Ishibashi did, and Yasuaki Kurata was featured in the next two films.

* Original Title: Onna hissatsu ken (女必殺拳)
* Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
* Chiba’s role: Major Supporting Role *
* Film availability: BCI Eclipse Sister Street Fighter DVD Box Set (USA), BCI Eclipse Sister Street Fighter BD Double Feature, Toei DVD (JP) (No Subs), HK Video Street Fighter Box Set (FR) (FR subs only)

* This is a bit tricky. Chiba’s screentime is certainly limited; however, he is featured in three fight scenes and provides some of the film’s best moments. I’m calling it a “major supporting role” because “minor supporting role” simply wouldn’t do it justice. Feel free to disagree.

Battles without Honour and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match

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Battles without Honour and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match (Japan, 1973)

The second film in the Battles without Honour and Humanity series strays from the main storyline to focus on a low rank henchman Yamanaka (the reason for this was that some of the source material – articles based on the life of gangster Kozo Mino – had not been published in its entirety by the time the production begun). The result was a narrower focus than most other instalments in the series, some of which were overloaded with complicated gangster politics. This allowed a greater focus on one of the series’ main themes: the disposable young men blindly taking orders by no-good superiors.

Hiroshima Death Match was a career changing moment for Sonny Chiba, who had originally been cast as Yamanaka. The role would’ve been a logical next step for Chiba, who was a popular actor know for playing handsome action heroes, but had also begun to appear in some darker themed crime films such as A Narcotics Agent’s Ballad (1972) in the early 70s. Kinya Kitaoji, another young actor with record of playing good guys in movies, was set to play the the maniac yakuza Otomo. However, realizing just how vile and rude the character was, Kitaoji found himself unable to play the character and asked if he could have a different role. Chiba and Kitaoji then switched roles at the last moment. The rest is history.

For Chiba, Otomo was a career changing role. Having never played a villain before (in fact, he was one of the top selling idols at the time), Chiba decided to give all he’s got to portray the ugliest human being imaginable. Director Fukasaku was taking turns encouraging (“scratch your balls!”) and restraining (“don’t smell your hand after scratching your balls! Overkill!) Chiba, whose performance was as memorable as over-the-top. Even more importantly, it was the role that directly contributed to Chiba’s later characters, such as the classic anti-hero in The Street Fighter (1974 (a slightly more heroic karate version of Otomo) and the even crazier villain in Okinawa Yakuza War (1976) (a psychopath version of The Street Fighter).

The role switch worked for Kitaoji as well, who did excellent job portraying a tormented man who had even been denied the right to die (when he was too young to join the kamikaze during WWII). The film’s setting, Hiroshima, played both a symbolic and concrete role in the film. In real life Hiroshima was the only place where the yakuza conflicts got so violent even innocent bystanders were caught in the line of fire. Symbolically speaking, director Fukasaku has always portrayed the modern yakuza as a side-product of the post war misery.

To counter-balance the character focus, Fukasaku inserts several montage-like sequences of violence erupting on the streets, gangsters killing each other off in realistic scenes that are a far cry from cinematic cool, and the police and the press getting involved, all enhancing the image of a city taken over by violence. Toshiaki Tsushima’s amazing score, which is at its most effective in this movie, adds the final touch. Probably the best film in the Battles without Honour and Humanity series.

From Chiba’s perspective it’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had Chiba and Kitaoji not switched the roles. It’s a fascinating thought that Chiba could’ve have played the starring role; on the other hand his later filmography might’ve become very different. Without Hiroshima Death Match would he ever have created the unforgettable character he played in The Street Fighter, which not only lead him to international fame but also influenced the kind of characters he played in various other mid-70s action films?

* Original title: Battles without Honour and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match (仁義なき戦い 広島死闘篇)
* Director: Kinji Fukasaku
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Arrow DVD / BD (UK/US)

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)

Organized Crime

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Organized Crime (Japan, 1967)
This is basically a predecessor to the 70s jitsuroku yakuza films. The film draws a pessimistic image of gang violence that breaks out on the streets between rivalry yakuza clans. There’s ambition to it, and the slightly documentary-like approach resembles the later jitsuroku films, but the film isn’t especially captivating or memorable. Rather than following any specific character, the film focuses on the entire crime society and jumps back and forth between characters who come and go. Unfortunately none of them are that interesting. A detective played by Tetsuro Tamba is probably the closest to a central character. The second billed Sonny Chiba, who plays one of the lower ranking yakuza, only becomes a major character during the second half.

* Original title: Soshiki boryoku (組織暴力)
* Director: Junya Sato
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)