Teruo Ishii makes films for adolescent lads, giving them plenty of one-sided sex committed against rather than with women, & scads of fight scenes.
He's regarded as a "cult director" & not apt to be liked by anyone who thinks even an exploitation film should have a at least a few slight moments of intelligence or credibility.
Tragically regarded as one of Ishii's best films, the jazzily scored karate film The Executioner aka Direct Hit: Hell Fist !(Chokugeki! Jigoku-ken, Toei, 1974) provides horrible cinematography & jerky quick-cut editing instead of quality fight choreography.
Shinichi Chiba plays Ryuichi Koga a modern descendant of ninjas who takes on a drug cartel. In flashbacks to his ninja training, Ryuichi is played by Hiroyuki Sanada, who'd one day become one of Japan's greatest actors in films like Twilight Samurai (Tosagare Seibei, 2002), but was a dufusy teen hearthrob in the '70s.
Chiba is in the main very tacky in his performance, making vomit sounds when trying to scream like Bruce Lee, & mugging so butch it comes off sissy.
Reminiscent of the "castrate a black man" scene right out of one of Chiba's Streetfighter movies, his character Kouga beats the living daylights out of a virtually helpless black guy who was having cross-racial sex then tosses him off a balcony.
A mostly second-string action cast, but with some few exciting faces, including Makoto Sato as a disgraced police officer turned avenging hitman, & a guest appearance from Ryo Ikebe.
In the main, The Executioner is just a bad movie. In the unnecessary sequel The Executioner II: Karate Inferno aka Karate from Hell: Star of Pharoah (Chokugeki jigaku-ken: dai gyakuten, Toei, 1974) Kouga has become the thief of thieves out to get a jewel from a crook.
There's more slapstick gags this time around & plenty of pointless action, but Chiba has absolutely nothing to be proud of here.
The ability of Japanese studios to get notable actors in even the crummiest exploitation fare is an interesting phenonemon.
Hence impressive actors Tetsura Tamba & Ryo Ikebe put in wasted appearances. But the main cast is once again a second-string, with "Sue" Shiomi & the Japan Action Club hopping about foolishly.
The conclusion with a comic reference to the Abashiri Prison series perked me up for a half-second.
Some people regard these two films as classics of sleeze rather than regular sleeze. For the rest of us, we can just count our blessings that there was no Executioner III.
The two Executioner films are available in a number of different packagings, separately or in sets, including Lethal Chiba: 3 Movie Set (2009). The third film is Killing Machine (Shorinji kenpo, 1975). Chiba again gives teen dynamo Etsuko Shiomi of the Action Club a front row part, & Tetsuro Tamba guest stars as a cop who admires the hero.
If you've ever enjoyed such unutterable crap as Chiba's Executioner or Streetfighter films, then you already know Killing Machine is your kind of crap, & no shame in that.
It always struck me as a shame that a charismatic performer like Chiba didn't toss a few bones to viewers who like reasonably good stories too. But for physical mastery of the screen, Killing Machine is a great deal better than his Executioner outings, part of its appeal being the historical setting Chiba's desire to portray a real person a bit more responsibly than in the seediest of his seedy fight films.
Chiba plays Doshin Soh who returns to Japan after the war in Asia to found a new martial arts school based on Shaolin kung fu. He sadly discovers discovers his family's land has been taken over by thugs & a sweet young girl (Shiomi) sold into prostitution.
Doshin tries everything peaceable to obtain a fair outcome but who's suprirsed that doesn't work. Leaping high with outstretched foot in the faces of yakuza (gangsters) is what it takes, & there's plenty of that.
Chiba's kempo outfit is what serves as characterization & he does look cool in the Japanese equivalent of Shaolin monk garb. You can tell everyone did want to be respectful of history's Doshin Soh (who was still alive when the film was made), though the story's character has as much in common with the real Doshin Soh as a duck has in common with Donald Duck.
Most of the allegedly "true" histories of Doshin Soh are just as fabular anyway, so why not confabulate further. It's never acknowledged that working as a secret agent for the Japanese military in Manchuria did not mean James Bond derring-do, but participation in some of the cruelest war crimes ever perpetrated by man against man.
And the xenophobia & racism that oozes from Killing Machine against Koreans, Russians, Americans is precisely the kind of "doth protest too much" when pride is so wildly misplaced.
The myth is that he spent the war studying Buddhist law & martial arts at temple, or wandering Manchuria as a knight errant. But if it was even true that he ever became a member of a Shaolin secret society, it was as an infiltrating agent provacateur for the Japanese occupation. The Japanese were the bad-guys in that war.
Generally his autobiographical writings confess only that he was disappointed in the chasm between his youthful dream of glorious battle, & the furtive missions the military actually assigned. But even dismissing the legends of his continental heroics, when he was back in Japan at war's end, he does seem to have been as decent a guy as anyone might want as a martial arts instructor. And no classic sensei failed to trump up heroic biographies, some little bits of which may even have been true.
History's Doshin Soh might justifiably have been offended by the English title Killing Machine, but not the idea that he would use his martial skills to help the downtrodden.
And Chiba really did know kenpo, so in spite of huge flourishes to make it cinematically more thrilling, what you see him do is pretty darned close to what shorinji monks do learn.
For those reasons many American practitioners of kenpo have a genuine fondness for the film despite its extravagant failings & exploitation focus -- though it does take an effort to fail to notice it is really only the sort of film that wants you to watch Chiba castrate bad guys & feed their balls to a stray dog.
If you want to experience the film at its best (all these films really) stick to the Japanese language soundtrack with English subtitles. But if you just want the action, which is the primary thing anyway, the English dubbed versions will suffice.
See also Chiba's
Masu Oyama Trilogy
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl