As one might guess from my film reviewing resume, I watch a lot of Asian movies. Unfortunately, judging by the same resume, it would appear that most of that is anime and drama. But in my spare time, I do watch a lot of popular Asian cinema, especially with the likes of Donnie Yen or Jing Wu. In addition to contemporary favorites, I certainly have not forgotten the roots of martial art cinema in the likes of Bruce Lee and others. Well, today I received a box set featuring one of the legends of Asian cinema: Shin’ichi Chiba, better known to most American audiences as the one and only Sonny Chiba. That set of films would be of course, The Street Fighter Collection. Let us take a look.
The Street Fighter begins with Tateki Shikenbaru (played by Masashi Ishibashi) in a jail cell, a murderer about to be executed for his crimes. He is visited by a Buddhist monk who is presumably there to give him his last rites. That’s no monk, but he might be there to give him his last rites. His name is Takuma Tsurugi (played by Sonny Chiba), karate man for hire, and he takes out Shikenbaru with a special punch that throws him into a coma. As the convict is rushed to the hospital, Tsurugi and his faithful sidekick Rakuda (played by Goichi Yamada) free him and send him off to Hong Kong.
As it turns out, Shikenbaru’s brother, Gijun (played by Jiro Chiba) and sister Nachi (played by Etsuko Shihomi) are the ones who hired Tsurugi to get their brother out of jail. Unfortunately, they don’t have all of the money, and Tsurugi is not going to give them any more time. This leads to a spirited fight where it ends with Gijun flying out a window, and then later Nachi ends up being sold into slavery. I’m not talking about picking cotton, either.
A possible job then comes Tsurugi’s way when he is asked by the Yakuza to kidnap Sarai Chuayut (played by Yutaka Nakajima), the daughter of a freshly dead oil tycoon. Tsurugi wants nothing to do with the Yakuza and refuses the assignment. Well, the Yakuza don’t care for that and try to kill him. Tsurugi escapes but realizes that the Yakuza will go after Sarai anyway. This takes the karate master to a Seibukan dojo, where the master is one Kendo Masaoka (played by Masafumi Suzuki). This might be one fight that this young upstart can’t win.
In Return of the Street Fighter, Tsurugi is back, and with his new sidekick Pin Boke (played by Yoko Ichiji) and ready to take on the Yakuza again. This time the Yakuza are at the center of an embezzlement scandal and laundering money for a fake dojo. They try to enlist Tsurugi’s help to take out Kendo Masaoka and his dojo.
Tsurugi doesn’t want to do it (see reasons from the first film), and he of course gets attacked for his efforts. This leads to more violence and also a surprise return of a villain from the first film that we thought was no longer among the living. If this sounds a lot like the first film, well, that’s because it is essentially the same plot line and ass-kickery. Just no lower-extremities being ripped off this time around (though we do get some bashing from behind the head and eyes popping out).
Finally, in Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, we get a different plot line but with more of the same karate and some actual nudity, so that’s always a plus. Here Tsurugi is asked to steal a tape that contains material that will blackmail a politician who has been bribing other officials to look the other way at a local chemical plant. He does so but then is exposed in the newspapers by the Owada Family. So he steals it back, which then puts him in a struggle with the crime family.
Part of that crime family is one Aya Owada (played by Reiko Ike), who uses her brains and her body to seduce Tsurugi. She also later recruits Frankie Black (played by Dorian Howard) to try to take out the martial artist. However, Tsurugi’s biggest threat might be Takera Kunigami (played by Koji Wada), a prosecutor trained in the martial arts who knows a little bit of deception of his own. But when Tsurugi receives spiritual guidance from an old friend and help from a sister street fighter, just maybe he can overcome the odds.
It should also be noted that in the third film, the US cut is a slightly different plot line in that the tape contains the formula for synthetic heroin as opposed to a politician-blackmailing plot.
The first film certainly falls more into the grind-house family of films, where we have plenty of harsh violence including horrific displays of plenty of blood loss. It actually received an X-rating because of that violence, which including punches where a ton of teeth fall out (I think that was more than 32), and of course the infamous castration-by-karate tug and pull scene. Tsurugi also plays a very unlikable anti-hero character who doesn’t mind screwing over just about everybody he comes into contact with.
The rest of the supporting cast is there to be cannon fodder for the most part, with some exceptions. I enjoyed the character of Kendo Masaoka and have to say for his size he moves remarkably well. The unsung hero of the first film is certainly Tateki Shikenbaru, who in some ways is a sympathetic character as he tries to avenge his brother and get revenge on Tsurugi. I was happy to see him show up in the second movie (and was slightly disappointed he didn’t show up in the third).
The second film is a bit more of a head-scratcher. Tsurugi is making his slow transition from anti-hero to vigilante but doesn’t really appear in the movie as much as you would expect. They spend an awful amount of time in Masaoka’s dojo. This wouldn’t be so bad, except a good portion of that is spent explaining things like an educational video. Yes, those are Tonfa sticks. I don’t need the white lettering at the bottom of the screen to tell me such things.
That aside we get the worst sidekick of the trilogy in Pin Boke, also known as “Kitty”, who looks trapped in a 70’s disco film. Far out, man. However, we do get some fun times and some iconic moments, especially when Shikenbaru makes his fateful return. It is probably the weakest film of the three, but the primary reasons are the reused story line, infrequent use of Chiba, and educational nonsense. If this had been a revenge cat-and-mouse movie with Chiba and Ishibashi as the primary drivers, it would have worked a lot better.
Once we get to the third film, it really goes off the rails. Suddenly Tsurugi is now as close to a hero as can be (sympathetic, too, thanks to us learning about the events surrounding his father’s death), and he is apparently also the master of disguise. It comes off as Mission Impossible and James Bond rolled into one. Complete with sleeping with the enemy, so to speak, of Aya Owada, who we get to see a lot of (which was honestly a nice change of pace from the violence).
However, with that we also get the absolutely ridiculous Frankie Black, an American who wears Spanish Mariachi clothing and thanks to science can produce electrical shocks with his hands. Thankfully, he’s not the main villain, but Kunigami is no Shikenbaru, that’s for sure. It makes the way for an underwhelming finale, but still much better than the second film. Furthermore, we get to see Tsurugi fully evolved and likable as opposed to the despicable origins of the first film.
All three films are shown in a 2.35:1 widescreen picture. The first two films are 2K scans of color reversal inter-negative of the English language cut and an earlier HD master of the Japanese cut. The color was then matched and balanced. Despite the mishmash of the sources, the first two especially come out looking fantastic over the DVD and other sources I have seen. Color is excellent, grain feels authentic, and there is no black crushing that I could find. Facial detail is right on point, and it’s quite entertaining to see all of the faces made during the most brutal of karate scenes.
The third film is even more of a Frankenstein, as this one was also a 2K scan of the inter-negative, but it also included about four minutes of SD footage (in order to produce the Japanese cut) that was not from the Warner vaults. I had never seen the third film, but this is unfortunately where I saw a few more flaws in the proceedings, and it was not just in the SD inserts, either. A little more of a jagged presentation and sometimes a drop in the color quality of presentation. However, for those of us who enjoy looking at the beautiful Reiko Ike, we get very little loss of detail in any of the shots.
The audio tracks contained in each film are English and Japanese DTS HD Master Audio in Mono. The first film actually has three tracks with the Japanese Mono, the English Theatrical Mono Dub, and a 90’s re-release Mono English dub. It was really good to finally hear the original Japanese, as I had been only previously exposed to the cringe-worthy yet hilarious English dubs. It really added a new level of understanding and gave many moments a more serious and sometimes frightening tone. Tsurugi also comes across as a badass instead of delivering canny one-liners.
In the actual quality department, there is nothing really special about the tracks. They are repurposed only slightly here from other times I have seen them and certainly sound better than ever. The dialog is clear, and I didn’t have any real problems deciphering everything at normal levels (when I did listen to the English dubs). The music and martial art noises every once in a while did come in a little loud, but there was nothing obnoxious about it. Subtitles are provided for each picture in English, and it was nice to see the original names of the characters rather than the Americanized ones.
The Street Fighter (Disc One)
Interview with Actor Sonny Chiba 27:10 : Sonny is looking fantastic here at nearly eighty years old, but he does want to let us know that he is done with karate. Thank goodness; I did not want to get pulled over by a policeman only for the policeman to reveal himself as Tsurugi and get my eyeballs gouged out. That is a blessing. Anyway, he gives us a little history in that he was going to go to the Olympics, but he got hurt so he turned to acting. He goes into how he learned karate and that many of the actions in the movies can actually occur (just a little exaggerated obviously) but are considered very dishonorable.
Sonny then explains how Budo is important to martial arts and also touches on Bruce Lee (with whom unfortunately he never got to make a movie). He also explains how reluctant he was to do the movies because of the violence and the killing. Finally, he also talks to us about how Tsurugi evolved from a villain to a hero. Sonny comes across as extremely humble throughout the entire interview, and it’s a very pleasurable way to spend half an hour.
Interview with Trailer Editor/Filmmaker Jack Sholder 13:03 : We get introduced to Jack here as he once upon a time wanted to write films, but then he took LSD, and then through a few twists and turns became a trailer editor. That explains a lot. Anyway, he goes into his beginnings at New Line Cinema and the direction he took to cutting a trailer, starting with his first assignment, which was End of August at the Hotel Ozone. He then goes into cutting the trailers for the Street Fighter films, where he is pretty candid about the shots he used. I do, however, need to make a mental note to see the Tattooed Hitman now.
U.S. Theatrical Trailer 2:26
Japanese Theatrical Trailer 3:00
Still Gallery 6:32
Return of the Street Fighter (Disc Two)
U.S. Theatrical Trailer 2:10
U.S. Teaser Trailer 0:33
Japanese Theatrical Trailer 3:02
Still Gallery 3:02
Street Fighter’s Last Revenge (Disc Three)
U.S. Theatrical Trailer 3:06
Japanese Theatrical Trailer 3:04
Still Gallery 1:37
Notes on the Trailers and Still Galleries : While normally I would recommend the trailers, I would only do so if you have already watched the films. The trailers in the 70’s especially for these exploitation type films were geared towards getting people into the cinema, and be damned if they actually gave away plot points or things that should normally be held back. They are also pretty darn explicit as well.
The still galleries provide many shots from the actual movie as well as include many advertisements and movie posters to look at. It runs as a continuous slide show, but you can certainly use your pause function as needed.
It would be easy to get this box set and completely trash it, making fun of all of the stereotypes that were often found in 70’s martial art films. However, this isn’t a stereotype when it is the classic trilogy from which it all started. Sonny Chiba does a fantastic job with his commanding screen presence and dominates every scene he is a part of with flair. Yes, a lot of the action can be on the hokey side, but when watched in its original language, it actually can be quite interesting with the plot mechanics.
The box set is a shining example of what great restoration work looks like. The picture is excellent, the audio is serviceable, and the two new interviews are worth watching in their entirety. The only thing missing is if they would have had a Japanese historian on hand to do some commentaries. OK, perhaps I’m being selfish. But I highly recommend this set to any martial art aficionados or those interested in underground 70’s Asian cinema. Chiba is a living legend, and while Bruce Lee got all of the appreciation and glamour, Sonny was busting his butt and grinding out movies left and right. Take a look, and enjoy.