The Street Fighter (Japan, 1974)
This was the film that started the golden age of Japanese karate entertainment. Two important factors should be considered when we discuss the film: timing and talent. Although Chiba had been making action movies since the early 1960s, including a couple of full-fledged martial arts films, Japanese karate films had never really taken off. For years Chiba had to deal with producers and directors who had little to no interest in the fighting aspect. Matters were made even worse by tight filming schedules. Things finally begun to change when Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon was released in Japanese theatres in December 1973 and proved a major hit (it was the first Lee film to arrive Japan; others followed in 1974-1975). All of a sudden there was a genuine demand for martial arts films.
The story behind The Street Fighter goes a bit further back than that, though. The production was launched earlier in 1973 after Toei screenwriter Koji Takada had seen a number of kung fu films in Hong Kong (probably during the production of Tokyo-Seoul-Bangkok Drug Triangle) and managed to convince Toei executives that they should produce something similar with Japanese karate. Takada had Toei producers attend an advance screening of Enter the Dragon, which did the trick. Chiba was selected as the star: not surprising considering not only his status as the leading Japanese action star / stunt choreographer, but also his expertise in martial arts.
At first Toei intended the film to be an international co-production, but the Hong Kong studio it was offered to, Golden Harvest, did not take the bait. Perhaps Toei’s understanding of a movie with an international appeal -that is, Chiba killing gangsters from various foreign countries – was not to their liking. This does, however, explain why parts of the film take place in Hong Kong and many of the characters are Chinese (although portrayed by Japanese actors). The budget was cut from the original, but the film went to production and Chiba spent his Christmas holidays filming the movie. The Street Fighter hit the theatres in February 1974, six week after Enter the Dragon.
The Street Fighter was also a movie that could not have been born much earlier – or at least not turn out the way it did – as the necessary action talent had just been discovered a few months earlier. Chiba’s earlier action films had often suffered from the lack of co-stars with martial arts experience who could make good opponents for Chiba. Most of Toei’s action film stars were yakuza film actors who looked good with a gun or sword, but made poor karate fighters. This finally changed when Chiba discovered Masashi Ishibashi, who was cast as a villain in Chiba’s previous movie Bodyguard Kiba 2 (1973). Ishibashi was a real life karate master and Chiba’s senior, who had been acting in movies for a good while already but hadn’t done much on-screen action before. With Ishibashi on board Chiba had finally found an actor who could keep up with the choreographies even when films had to be completed at lighting pace.
The action scenes in The Street Fighter were co-designed by Chiba and Ishibashi (as well as other real life martial artists), who played the film’s famous villain and returned for countless other Chiba films like Karate Bullfighter. There were other real life martial artists involved as well, like the future leader of All Japan Karate Federation Masafumi Suzuki (the older master), pro wrestler Tsutomu Harada (the villain who loses is eyes), and kick boxer Ken Kazama & karate man Yushiro Sumi (as two bodyguards). Chiba’s brother Jiro, who later went on to star in The Defensive Power of Aikido (1975), and Chiba’s protégé Etsuko Shihomi, who would become the biggest Japanese female martial arts star of all time, are also featured in minor roles. Furthermore, Chiba’s real life master Masutatsu Oyama’s influence can clearly be seen in the film: although he does not appear on screen, his thoughts are obviously echoed in the opening scene where Ishibashi criticizes the state of modern karate.
The Street Fighter also became an unforgettable showcase of Chiba’s anti-hero charm and ultra-violence. Chiba was given relatively free hands at creating the main character, a badass mercenary called Takuma Tsurugi. Chiba drew influence from the psychotic yakuza villain he had played in Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza film Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Hiroshima Death Match (1973), but made the character a little less evil this time. He also added his own brand of Oyama influenced fighting, which was faster and more brutal than the extended and balletic fighting scenes seen in many Kong Kong films. What resulted was 90 minutes of cinematic badassness that remains one of the most enjoyable action films of the 1970s. It was also very successful upon its release in both Japan, where Chiba toured theatres giving action demonstrations, and the US, where the film was even featured in the Playboy magazine, probably due to having been the first movie ever rated X for violence alone by MPAA.
For better or worse, The Street Fighter has characterized Chiba’s reputation ever since and made him a cult hero all around the world. However, his best work as an on-screen martial artist was still to come. The Street Fighter was still a contemporary action film where, for the most part, gunplay had merely been replaced with martial arts. This was no doubt largely due to Toei, as well as their filmmakers from screenwriter Takada to director Shigero Ozawa, being veterans of yakuza films rather than martial arts movies. It wasn’t until the next year when Chiba’s martial movies found their purest form in films like Killing Machine, Karate Bearfighter and The Defensive Power of Aikido, all of which were biopics of real life martial artists.
Side note: there is some confusion regarding Chiba’s side-kick character calling him “darling” throughout the film in the Japanese language version. The word is actually not “darling”, it’s “talen” which is Chinese for “master”. This makes perfect sense since the character is supposed to be Chinese or Singaporean, whose life was saved by Chiba. The Japanese mispronunciation of the term has, however, fooled many viewers and added unintended homosexual sub-context. It’s quite amusing indeed, especially when the character even cooks Chiba’s meals and does his laundry; however, it’s all a misunderstanding.
* Original Title: Gekitotsu: Satsujin ken (激突！ 殺人拳)
* Director: Shigehiro Ozawa
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Optimum DVD (UK), HK Video (FR) (FR subs only), Toei DVD (no subs)