Category Archives: Year: 1975-1979

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

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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

Dead Angle

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Dead Angle (Japan, 1979)

154 minute, novel based crime drama about a sociopath businessman (Isao Natsuyagi) and his associates who cheat small businesses out of their money with shady contracts in the early 50s. It’s a pretty well acted and somewhat original film that nevertheless suffers from the late 70s / early 80s “mammoth disease” that came to plague Japanese cinema. Running time has been extended beyond the necessary point, and the emphasis has been shifted from action to character drama. Thankfully, here it works pretty well. Sonny Chiba has a small but decent supporting role as a small time mobster who becomes partners with the main character, doing some of his dirty work.

* Original title: Hakuchu no shikaku (白昼の死角)
* Director: Toru Murakawa
* Chiba’s role: Small Supporting Role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (JP) (no subs)

Chiba

Chiba

Chiba

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)

Message From Space

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Message From Space (Japan, 1978)

The Japanese were quick to take note of Star Wars’ success, releasing a handful of copycats to Japanese screens before the film had even opened in Japan. Message From Space was the biggest budgeted (approx. $5 million) of them. Hiroyuki Sanada, Etsuko Shihomi, and Vic Morrow star; Sonny Chiba has a small and forgettable supporting role. In fact, more interesting than the cast is the fact that the film was based on an old samurai novel. Unfortunately the sci-fi adaptation turned out quite a mess with hardly any interesting characters. Special effects are sometimes good, sometimes not. Tokusatsu fans may still like it, and indeed the film has its fans, but for non-genre fans there are better movies to see. Fukasaku did much better with his second try, Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983), which was a tremendously entertaining pop ballad period fantasy version of the same story.

* Original title: Uchu kara no messeji (宇宙からのメッセージ)
* Director: Kinji Fukasaku
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (in Japanese, no subtitles), Shout! Factory DVD (US) (English dub), Discotek / Eastern Star DVD (US) (sub and dub) (the legal status of this release is questionable)

Honor of Japan

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Honor of Japan (Japan, 1977)

This was a sort of companion piece to the Godfather of Japan trilogy (1977-1978), which director Sadao Nakajima put out around the same time, to the extent that it shared some of the same advertising taglines. All of the films were talkative, story-heavy films about organized criminality, featuring a dozen central characters in each film and mostly lacking the hectic energy of the mid-70s yakuza films. They are, despite their ambition, a sad example of where the genre was heading: towards pretentious “serious crime cinema” that emphasized pseudo-epic storylines over mayhem despite not having especially interesting storylines in the first place. Honor of Japan works best during its few violent shoot outs, and when it pits yakuza stars Bunta Sugawara and Sonny Chiba against each other, but like the Godfather of Japan films it suffers from a slow-moving and not all that engaging storyline.

* Original title: Nihon no jingi (日本の仁義)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Yakuza War: The Japanese Godfather

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Yakuza War: The Japanese Godfather (Japan, 1977)

By 1977 the jitsuroku yakuza film genre was nearly dead. Kinji Fukasaku released his final yakuza films that year, while his colleague Sadao Nakajima still went on for a few more years, but the films weren’t getting any better. Ultra violence and documentary style gangster films just weren’t the big thing anymore, and the producers were telling filmmakers to try and appeal to female audiences. Violence was cut down, more drama was written into the storylines and running times were extended to make the films bigger. Novels were often used as source material. It was the beginning of the end.

The Japanese Godfather is a sort of transitional film. It runs way too long at 132 minutes, but at the same time it still retains some of the ruthless violence and graphic sex that characterized the mid-70s yakuza films, including director Nakajima’s own Okinawa Yakuza War (1976). Highlights include manly man Bunta Sugawara pulling bullets out of his vest with his bare hands, and short tempered bodyguard Sonny Chiba yelling at a man and pulling him from the clothes AFTER unloading six bullets into his chest times.

Toei gathered basically every big name actor they could get for this film, and called it “30 years of Toei men” on the poster. Of course, there had been similar star gatherings before, but this time it felt more like an attempt to lure the audiences to the theatre one last time. The cast includes Sugawara, Chiba, Koji Tsuruta, Tsunehiko Watase, Mikio Narita, Hiroki Matsukata, Asao Koike, Tatsuo Umemiya, and many others. The sequel would add Toshiro Mifune to the cast. There was, of course, a certain charm to having all these guys in the same movie.

* Original title: Yakuza senso: Nihon no don (やくざ戦争 日本の首領)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subtitles)

Sonny China being a gentleman

Bunta Sugawara removing bullets from his west

Alan Delon, sorry, I mean Sonny Chiba, doing bodyguarding for Koji Tsuruta

Yakuza mobile

Hiroki Matsukata enjoying the view

Car on fire

Gangster meeting

Yakuza rests on the floor

Sonny Chiba grabbing a man by the chest AFTER shooting him six times!

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)

Okinawa Yakuza War

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Okinawa Yakuza War (Japan, 1976)

This excellent jitsuroku yakuza film is based on the 4th Okinawa conflict which saw the local yakuza battle the mainland gangs after Okinawa was handed back to Japan in 1972. The conflict was still going on at the time the film was released, and fearing the film might add fuel to the fire, the Okinawan government banned it immediately. Sonny Chiba plays the most frightening character of his career as a psychotic mad dog yakuza with karate skills. The character is basically a combination of two earlier Chiba characters: Otomo from Hiroshima Death Match, and Tsurugi from The Street Fighter. The film’s real lead is Hiroki Matsukata, but Chiba steals every scene he’s in with his incredible over-the-top performance. The film does lose a bit of its energy when Chiba is not on screen, but it’s still a very solid and extremely violent genre film, just a notch behind Kinji Fukasaku’s films.

When the film played at the Sonny Chiba film festival in Tokyo in 2014, the print was in such poor shape that it could literally have fallen apart any moment. Bucket loads of frames were missing, including a long segment showing a central character’s death. Film preservers had, however, heroically managed to restore a 2 second bit of female star Maya Hiromi’s breasts to the middle of the missing segment.

* Original Title: Okinawa yakuza senso (沖縄やくざ戦争)
* Director: Sadao Nakajima
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (JP) (No subs)