Category Archives: Role: Major Supporting

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

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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)

North Sea Chivalry

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North Sea Chivalry (Japan, 1967)
Sonny Chiba gives a solid dramatic performance in an otherwise uninspired semi-ninkyo drama. The storyline follows a struggling fisherman clan (lead by old man Kanjuro Arashi) that tries not to get in trouble with the local yakuza (with Tomisaburo Wakayama as the leader). The film struggles to find any kind of focus to the extent that there is no obvious main character. Chiba, however, is by far the best thing about the film as the clan leader’s son, who rebels against his father. He doesn’t participate in any action scenes, but his performance is solid and his character is easily the best written in the film.

* Original title: Hokkai yukyoden (北海遊侠伝)
* Director: Ryuchi Takamori
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Chiba and Reiko Ohara

Kanjuro Arashi

Tomisaburo Wakayama

Here Because of You

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Here Because of You (Japan, 1964)

A very enjoyable youth film about two high school kids who aren’t exactly in love, but certainly have a bit of love/hate sparks between them. It was a starring vehicle for two young pop stars, Kazuo Funaki and Chiyoko Honma (Yakuza’s Song, 1963). However, it is Sonny Chiba as their nice guy gymnastics teacher who ends up having one of the film’s best roles. Chiba lands himself in trouble after one of his students hurts himself in his class, and the kid’s father begins a smear campaign to get him fired. What results is a high school “court room” session where the double faced adults are accusing Chiba of everything they can think of while his students come to his defense. Director Ryuchi Takamori helmed numerous mediocre action films in the 1960s. This movie, his first as a director, is different. It’s full of upbeat energy, good performances, and catchy songs. It an old fashioned movie in the most positive sense.

* Original title: Kimitachi ga ite, boku ga ita (君たちがいて僕がいた)
* Director: Ryuichi Takamori
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Kazuo Funaki and Chiyoko Honma

Chiba as their teacher

Honma finds Chiba has never washed his dirty socks… he has stored them all in the closet

Chiba and Junko Miyazono

Gambler Tales of Hasshu: A Man’s Pledge

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Gambler Tales of Hasshu: A Man’s Pledge (Japan, 1963)

This is one of the many films based on the legend of Chuji Kunisada, a wandering gambler and a defender of the weak in the Edo period. In other words, he was the Japanese Robin Hood. In this film Kunisada (Chiezo Kataoka) arrives to a small town terrorized by an evil gang. He insists that he is not Kunisada, as the word is Kunisada has been executed, but of course the audience know better. Sonny Chiba plays an unusual supporting role as a helpless young man unable to defend himself from the gangsters. He does, however, get to play taiko drums and dance with Junko Fuji (who makes her film debut here). Chiba’s father, an old judge who helps Kunisada, is played by Takashi Shimura (Seven Samurai). The film hardly anything exceptional, but it’s a pretty decent jidai geki / yakuza drama.

* Original title: Hasshu yukyoden – otoko no sakazuki (八州遊侠伝 男の盃)
* Director: Masahiro Makino
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Kataoka

Chiba

Chiba and Shimura

Chiba and Junko Fuji

Chiba playing taiko drums

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…