Category Archives: Role: Starring

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

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)

G.I. Samurai

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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