Category Archives: Year: 1965-1969

Memoir of Japanese Assassins

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Memoir of Japanese Assassins (Japan, 1969)

This is an odd beast in Sonny Chiba’s filmography, a powerful political thriller that chronicles real life assassinations from Japan’s recent history. The film opens with a seemingly endless cavalcade of violent assassinations, with superstars like Ken Takakura, Tomisaburo Wakayama and Bunta Sugawara popping up just for a few minutes in their own segments to cut off someone’s head, stab someone to death, or blow someone into pieces.

About 20 minutes into the film the storyline has finally reached the early 1930s, with Sonny Chiba standing in front of the court, accused of terrorism. This is when the bloodshed finally comes to an end. For the next 100 minutes there would not be a single killing as the film takes its time to show how an ordinary young man (Chiba) grew into a political assassin.

Chiba’s character, Sho Onuma, is an ill but loyal employee at a factory whose honest owner is driven to a bankruptcy by corrupt officials. Chiba is left without a job, and soon later his love interest dies from an illness. Following a failed suicide attempt, Chiba films a new home with a charismatic priest (Chiezo Kataoka). The man is Nissho Inoue, whom the world would later come to know as the leader of the ultra nationalist League of Blood organization.

At 142 minutes, Memoir of Japanese Assassins packs quite a bit of interesting philosophical discussions on terrorism and offers a provocative, non-judgemental view on its extremist characters. It would be easy to see it as an ultra-rightist political statement, but that wasn’t director Sadao Nakajima’s intention according to his own words. In facts, he has expressed his disappointment over such interpretations. I tend to believe him as the film comes out much less a rightist statement than general antipathy for corruption and exploitation of the weak. It also helps that more than 40 years have passed since the film was made.

That being said, it should be noted that nearly all historical figures killed in the film – that is daimyo Naosuke Ii, statesman Toshimichi Okubo, politician Shigenobu Okuma, communications minister Toru Hoshi, prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, and businessmen Zenjiro Yasuda, Junnosuke Inoue, and Dan Takuma – had something to do with the Japanese government’s attempts to modernize Japan and open the country to foreign influences. The February 26 Incident, which is also covered in the film, also aimed at bringing down a Western-minded government. Those such political connections are never explicitly stated in the film, most audiences at the time would surely have been aware of them.

What added to the films volatility was that its protagonist, Sho Onuma, was still alive as consulted the filmmakers (he had been sentenced for life, but pardoned in 1940). The Japanese Liberal Democrat Party tried to halt the film production and managed to censor parts of the final act, which contains passages from February 26 Incident leader Asaichi Isobe’s diary. Toei took advantage of the controversy, releasing a teaser trailer that showed Onuma on the set advising Chiba.

For Chiba Memoir of Japanese Assassins was no doubt what he had been looking for: a powerful crime drama with a very strong scrip and good characters. He had been in several mediocre crime dramas (North Sea Chivalry, 1967; The Tale of Kawachi Chivalry, 1967) where he tended to be best thing about an otherwise lazy production. In Memoir of Japanese Assassins Chiba gives one of his best performances, for which he won an acting award at the Kyoto Citizen Film Festival (Kyoto shimin eiga sai), where Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri was awarded the same year.

Director Nakajima was a highly uneven filmmaker who worked in almost any popular genre from pink films to samurai movies. Many of his movies are routine efforts, but some are genuinely inspired and well directed. Memoir of Japanese Assassins remains one of his best and most thoughtful films. Adding to the film’s strength is composer Isao Tomita’s epic score, which plays on repeat. The mix of politics, character drama and almost splatterific violence may be too much for some viewers, but for others this is an unpolished gem.

* Original title: Nihon ansatsu hiroku (日本暗殺秘録)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

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Delinquent Boss: Ocho the She-Wolf

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Delinquent Boss: Ocho the She-Wolf (Japan, 1969)

The second film in the Delinquent Boss series is a tiresome action comedy without a hint of inspiration. It was – for some reason – a phenomenally successful series for star Tatsuo Umemiya, who plays a silly biker gang boss surrounded by – at least in this entry – unfunny comic reliefs. The series went on for 16 instalments, in addition to which the character appeared in at least two unrelated movies, including a cameo in Girl Boss Blues: Queen Bee’s Challenge (1972). The series also gave its the title and some minor inspiration for the far superior Delinquent Girl Boss series.

Film connections are actually one of the few interesting things about Ocho the She-Wolf: the titular character is the same one Reiko Ike plays in Sex & Fury and Female Yakuza Tale, although those films were set in a different period and featured quite a different kind of Ocho. She’s played by Junko Miyazono here, but the role is pretty small. Sonny Chiba also appears in a small supporting role, and while it’s always a pleasure to see Chiba on screen, he has very little to do here. The same can be said about Bunta Sugawara. Even the massive end slaughter is an utter bore despite all the gunplay, explosions and bikes.

* Original title: Furyô banchô: Inoshika Ochô (不良番長 猪の鹿お蝶)
* Director: Yukio Noda
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Key Hunter

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Key Hunter (Japan, 1968-1973)

This was Sonny Chiba’s most important, although not best, work in the 1960s. The detective TV series focusing on Japan’s International Secret Police was created by Chiba and Kinji Fukasaku as a starring vehicle for Tetsuro Tamba. Hayato Tani, Eiko Okawa, Yoko Nogiwa and Chiba, who was in charge of creating the action scenes, co-starred. Although the whole cast appeared together in some episodes, most of the 262 episodes highlighted one or two characters with the rest either supporting or taking a rest. It’s an uneven but enjoyable series that contained action, thriller and comedic storylines. Today it’s best remembered for Tamba’s cool charisma and Chiba’s wild stunts, that include breathtaking moments like Chiba climbing out of a speeding car and grabbing on to a small aircraft that is about to take off.

The series made Chiba an action superstar in Japan and earned him fans in Hong Kong, including Jackie Chan who admired Chiba’s stunt performances. Chiba himself later stated that the series was a goldmine for him to practice his skills as action performer. He also established Japan Action Club during the production of the series. That being said, most of the best action scenes are during the show’s later episodes; the earlier ones feature some cool stunts but also plenty of standard action. In total, Chiba appeared in 177 episodes of which in more than one third he was the main star.

The storylines often leaned towards fantasy, the best ones usually written by Yuichi Ikeda. One of the best episodes features a criminal who has changes his face with a plastic surgery trying to escape. His girlfriend, the detectives, and a bunch of assassins all infiltrate the same flight with him but no one knows each others’ identity. Other great stories include Chiba forced to double a race driver who is targeted by assassins, and a episode where a young German boy is trying to resurrect the Third Reich in Japan. Many of the comedic episodes with the female cast fare much worse. Also, it’s a bit a shame that most of Chiba’s episodes were written not by Ikeda, but Susumu Takaku, who mainly penned pretty standard storylines.

Note: the review is based on Toei’s 20 episode DVD Collection as well as on a couple of dozen early episodes I caught on TV.

* Original title: Key Hunter / Kii hantaa (キイハンター)
* Directors: Kinji Fukasaku, Ryuichi Takamori, Hajime Sato, Yasuo Furuhata etc.
* Chiba’s role: Co-starring role
* Availability: Toei DVD (5 x 4 = 20 episodes) (no subs). Review Format: TV + DVD

Screencaps part 1: black & white episodes (1-104)
Tamba with a blonde girl in the opening episode (directed by Kinji Fukasaku)

The whole team.

Chiba and Tamba looking cool as hell

Chiba looking cool as hell

Although not a martial arts series, Chiba also threw in a few fights

Chiba has to attend a car race in disguise instead of a race driver who is being targeted by assassins.

Key Hunter screencaps part 2: colour episodes (105-262)

A German boy is preparing the return of the Third Reich in Japan

Insane Chiba stunt

Another insane Chiba stunt. That is really him, not a doll.

Unfortunately the show also features this kind of silliness

Thankfully also this kind of coolness

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)

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)

Tale of Kawachi Chivalry

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Tale of Kawachi Chivalry (Japan, 1967)
Sonny Chiba stars in this misleadingly marketed semi-ninkyo piece set in the early Showa era. Chiba plays a young man returning to his hometown. He begins working as chef, but he seems more interested in fooling around and picking fights. Enter yakuza film regular Bin Amatsu, and we have a conflict between the honest townspeople and corrupt criminals.

Tale of Kawachi Chivalry basically takes the typical ninkyo-yakuza film story, but strips it from the gloss and glorification. In a way, director Ryuichi Takamori was going the same direction as Kinji Fukasaku and Junya Sato with their late 60s works. Unfortunately, in the hands of the less talented Takamori it rarely translated into anything very interesting. Even more problematic was that his films were often missing the more complex themes of honour and obligation that could be found in the best ninkyo films.

Tale of Kawachi Chivalry is not a terrible film – Chiba is alright, the crew is experienced, and there’s a pretty exciting rickshaw race – but it’s among Chiba’s least memorable starring roles. The film’s magnificent poster, which shows Chiba armed with katana, is also very misleading: there is almost no action in the film, and Chiba never picks up that sword.

Tale of Kawachi Chivalry and North Sea Chivalry could be seen as related works, although they had different screenwriters. They both utilize a ninkyo-like premise, but in a way make it more contemporary and realistic, and are not really ninkyo films. Both films feature ordinary men as main characters instead of yakuza, who only appear as villains. Unfortunately neither film excels as a character drama despite being story driven and stripped of action. Both were directed by Takamori – who was the walking definition of mediocre – and starred Chiba, who was easily the best thing about both films. Chiba and Takamori collaborated a total of 10 times, including the Legendary Lullaby (Game of Chance) series, which also resembles these two films but were more true to ninkyo cinema by making the protagonist a lone yakuza with a kid.

* Original title: Kawachi yuukyoden ((河内遊侠伝))
* Director: Ryuchi Takamori
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Angry Chiba

Furious Chiba

Enraged Chiba

Amatsu and Murota

Surprised Chiba

Frustrated Chiba

Anxious Chiba

Breathless Chiba

Crazy Chiba

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