Category Archives: Role: Starring

The Gorilla Seven

Standard

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

Advertisements

New 7 Color Mask

Standard

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)

G.I. Samurai

Standard

G.I. Samurai (Japan, 1979)

Sonny Chiba revived his modern action formula from the late 60s / early 70s in this major action film produced by Haruki Kadokawa. It was a new era, however. Gone were the days of Toei’s modestly budgeted production line films, replaced by Kadokawa’s highly commercial production strategy which involved major monetary investments and simultaneous multi format merchandise releases (film, pamphlet, theme songs, novel etc.). The film was budgeted at over one billion yen, which was almost as much as Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980) and twice as much as Samurai Reincarnation (1981).

The clever action fantasy mixes science fiction with historical characters. Chiba stars as self defence forces commander whose platoon somehow gets thrown back in time to the 17th century. Luckily for them, all their weapons, equipment, and vehicles (including a helicopter and tank) get transported with them. They find themselves in the middle of a clan war between Nagao Kagetora (Isao Natsuyagi) and Shingen Takeda.

The generous budget has allowed Chiba to design a truckload of great stunt and action sequences. The final encounter between modern soldiers and the samurai is pure war where a tank and a helicopter are destroyed and dead enemies are counted in hundreds. There are some great stunts like Chiba hanging from a helicopter at the speed of 100 kilometres per hour, and Hiroyuki Sanada later climbing into and jumping from the same helicopter. Some of the stunts were filmed using camera attached to a helmet worn by Chiba.

Being a late 70s big budget film, the movie tones down the exploitation imagery somewhat compared to mid 70s. However, there is still a fair amount of violence, sexuality/nudity, unintentionally silly male bonding, and surprisingly dark themes regarding masculine desire for power and domination. Many of these darker shades were actually removed from the film’s butchered US theatrical release, which was cut by almost an hour. The original 139 min version is much preferable and doesn’t really lag despite the running time, except in the closing scene where the filmmakers needed to get closing theme ‘Endless Way’ played in its entirety. In terms of execution the film may not have the punch of Chiba’s best films, but as an action and stunt showcase it’s an entertaining ride.

* Original title: Sengoku jieitai (戦国自衛隊)
* Director: Kosei Sato
* Chiba’s role: Starring Role
* Film availability: Kadokawa SE DVD & BD (JP) (new master) (no subs), Kadokawa Standard DVD (JP) (old master) (no subs), BCI/Ronin Entertainment DVD (US) (new master), Adness DVD (US) (old master), Optimum DVD (UK) (new master) (cut for horse falls)

Hiroyuki Sanada

Hiroko Yakushimaru

Okinawa 10 Year War

Standard

Okinawa 10 Year War (Japan, 1978)

Sonny Chiba is at his most charismatic in this yakuza film based on the same conflict as Okinawa Yakuza War (1976). This one, however, covers a 10 year period. It was produced after the primary jitsuroku era and one can see the effect: the violence has been toned down a little bit, drama is emphasized with larger (not better) female roles, and there is a comedian included in the cast in a serious role. None of these changes were for the better. Chiba, however, is terrific as a gangster who has a wife and child to take care of. His acting is solid and charisma, partly thanks to the bearded look, is through the roof. Hiroki Matsukata co-stars. Opening credits and advertising materials bill him as the lead, but I would say Chiba is the actual main character with more screen time. The action packed ending is also very satisfying.

* Original title: Okinawa 10 nen senso (沖縄10年戦争)
* Director: Akinori Matsuo
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Karate for Life

Standard

Karate for Life (Japan, 1977)

The final film in the Masutatsu Oyama trilogy was also Chiba’s last karate film in which he played starring role. It was the end of an era; the 70s karate film boom had ran its course (new kind of action films with Chiba protégé Hiroyuki Sanada would emerge in the 80s, however). Having battled bears and bulls in the earlier instalments, Chiba now encounters the most frightening beast of them all: an American pro-wrester. It’s not one of Chiba’s better films, but it’s still quite entertaining if you can accept some clichéd drama featuring orphan children and rather silly fights against wrestlers. The film’s best scenes are the cool opening, in which Chiba beats 101 karate fighters, and fantastic closing duel against nemesis Masashi Ishibashi. Okinawa locations are also somewhat well used, and Hideo Murota turns in a good supporting performance as a fight promoter.

* Original Title: Karate baka ichidai (空手バカ一代)
* Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Adness DVD (USA)

Doberman Cop

Standard

Doberman Cop (Japan, 1977)

Kinji Fukasaku’s last crime film for the 70s. This is much different from his nihilist jitsuroku output; a loose adaptation of Fist of the North star author Bronson’s manga. Sonny Chiba is a country bumpkin detective from Okinawa, sent to Tokyo to catch serial killer. The case turns out to be connected with music industry. Chiba enters Tokyo carrying a pig in his bag, begins his investigations by visiting a strip club where he basically gets raped by a dancer, and soon befriends a pot smoking motorcycle gang. He’s also a trigger happy, karate trained badass who doesn’t hesitate to take out bad guys in the film’s effective action sequences. It all plays out like a live action comic book, which may take a while to get used to. Beneath the flamboyant surface, there is Fukasaku’s usual gritty world view to be found, however. The storyline, which links the show biz and underworld, is more interesting than average.

The film was followed by a TV series called Bakuso! Doberman Deka in 1980. The series did not feature Chiba, but co-starred Etsuko Shihomi. In the series the main character was a motorcycle cop.

* Original Title: Doberman deka (ドーベルマン刑事)
* Director: Kinji Fukasaku
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Arrow BD (US, UK), Toei DVD (JP) (no subs)

Karate Warriors

Standard

Karate Warriors (Japan, 1976)

Kazuhiko Yamaguchi was widely considered one of Toei’s least talented directors, yet he made some of the most enjoyable action films of the 70s. He compensated his lack of originality and message with an abundance of solid, occasionally exhilarating and technically well-enough made mayhem. Karate Warriors (Kozure Satsujin Ken) is literally a mix of Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami) and The Street Fighter (Satsujin Ken) as well as Yojimbo. Sonny Chiba is a wandering karate warrior who arrives a town ruled by two competing gangs. He tries to profit from the situation, while Isao Natsuyagi’s samurai bodyguard with a cub is complicating things. Passable story and plenty of great action. The film is best remembered for the fantastic slow motion effect where a scene is otherwise played in slow motion but the action reverts back to normal speed for a fraction of a second just when Chiba’s hit or kick is about to reach its target.

The US version of the film differs from the original Japanese print. The chronology has been changed, meaning scenes play in different order, the soundtrack differs and of course everyone has been dubbed in English. There may be other changes as well. Only the US version is available on DVD, but Toei has screened the Japanese cut in HD on Toei Channel.

* Original Title: Kozure satsujin ken (子連れ殺人拳)
* Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: BCI DVD (USA) (dubbed). Screencaps: TV

Jail Breakers

Standard

Jail Breakers (Japan, 1976)

Sonny Chiba is a master prison breaker in an entertaining, but slightly underwhelming action comedy loaded with impressive stunt work. The film was a return to the “modern stunt action” that had initially made Chiba famous in Key Hunter (1968-1973). The film has a tremendous opening scene in which Chiba escapes a prison by grabbing to ladders from a helicopter, changes his clothes in the air, jumps down to a moving truck and then jumps to another moving vehicle to make the escape. Jackie Chan would do something similar a few decades later in Police Story 3.

The rest of the film is a bit less inspired mix of action, comedy, and criminals taking turns at cheating each other. Writing is sometimes downright lazy, e.g. the scene where a carefully planned escape operation fails and Chiba simply steals a fire engine and drives away (during prison riot) without anyone noticing! Director Kosaku Yamashita was a master of old school ninkyo yakuza films, but he never seemed quite as comfortable with modern day movies. All that being said, it’s still a fun film, and also essentially a family friendly affair with no sex, and only minimal (though slightly bloody) violence.

* Original Title: Dasso yugi (脱走遊戯)
* Director: Kosaku Yamashita
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subs) (review format: 35mm / screencaps: TV)

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

Karate Bearfighter

Standard

Karate Bearfighter (Japan, 1975)

A very enjoyable sequel packs loads of action but almost no plot. Chiba is his usual badly behaving self as Oyama, who seems not have learned anything from the previous film’s events, and all the better for it. When he isn’t working as a yakuza bodyguard, he’s picking up fights at local dojos. He finally gets a grip of himself and travels to Hokkaido, where he befriends a little boy, but his enemies won’t leave him alone. He also agrees to fight a bear for money.

Unlike in the previous film where Chiba battled a real bull, this time we’re treated a remarkably unconvincing man in a bear suit. It’s silly, but at least you don’t have to feel sorry for the poor animal. The rest of the action is fast, fierce and plentiful, but once again slightly hurt by shaky camerawork.

The biggest issue in the otherwise entertaining film is the lack of a plot, which leaves the storyline without a clear aim. The film is lots of fun whenever there is action, but there is also a clear drop in the interest curve whenever the film shifts to a storytelling mode. Chiba’s earlier and more accomplished martial arts biopic Killing Machine wasn’t terribly plot driven either, but featured much better character drama.

* Original Title: Kenka karate gokushin burai ken (けんか空手 極真無頼拳)
* Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Adness DVD (USA), Toei DVD (JP) (no subs)

Screencaps from the Adness DVD:

A little bit more for Karate Bearfighter from the Toei DVD

Original Teaser

Masutatsu Oyama (middle) instructing a fight scene

Karate Bullfighter

Standard

Karate Bullfighter (Japan, 1975)

Sonny Chiba portrays his own master, kyokushin karate founder Masutatsu Oyama, is this excellent karate biopic, which obviously takes some liberties from the facts. The film is a live action adaptation of the Oyama comic books written by Ikki Kajiwara. Apparently master Oyama did not mind being portrayed as a brute and an “accidental” rapist – all of which worked to the film’s benefit.

Chiba is at the top of his game here. He portrays Oyama as a man who attends a karate tournament, beats all opponents, and then throws away the trophy because he thinks sportsman karate is for pussies! The fights are generally excellent and very physical, although they do suffer from some needlessly shaky camerawork (probably influenced by the documentary style yakuza films of the era). Chiba also fights a real bull – something Oyama also did.

Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi was never much of a storyteller, and that’s the film’s biggest flaw. It feels very episodic, making the film sometimes feel longer than it is. There’s a bit of love story, a bit of rivalry with nemesis Masashi Ishibashi, a bit of melodrama as Oyama kills a drunken man and then tried to make it up by taking care of his wife and child, and so on. One can sense the film tried to combine the juiciest parts of its source material without emphasizing coherence too much.

Chiba’s brother Jiro Chiba (who later starred in the excellent The Defensive Power of Aikido, 1975) plays a major supporting role as Oyama’s apprentice. Chiba returned later the same year for an even better sequel Karate Bearfighter.

* Original Title: Kenka karate kyokushin ken (けんか空手 極真拳)
* Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Adness DVD (USA), Toei DVD (JP) (no subs)

I don’t have many screencaps for this, so please forgive me for not doing the film justice.

Sonny and Jiro