Shinichi Chiba, well-known as "Sonny" Chiba in the west, reached a height of popularity on the world-wide sleeze market for action films in the mid 1970s, which was a time when Japanese cinema was on the wane & the nation's best films already things of nostalgia.
His first Street Fighter or Streetfighter movie (Gekitotsu! Satsujin ken, Toei, 1974) is sometimes known by its literal translatioin Clash! The Killer Fist. Chiba plays Takuma "Terry" Tsuguri, a mercenary for hire to yakuza gangs who ends up using his skills as a bodyguard protecting a tycoon's daughter from gangsters.
He karates his way from scene to scene, taking on the combined strength of the yakuza & the foreign mafia. He even rips out the balls of a lascivious ape-like black man, one of the grossest & most racist scenes ever committed to popular film.
I am old enough to report first-hand that when this film first made the "action circuit" of inner city American neighborhoods, urban filmgoers, including a great many black folk, would be hooting & hooraying every violent scene, until that black guy gets his nuts torn off. There was a sudden dead silence in the audience, but Chiba very slowly won the audience back.
As entertainment it is ignorance incarnate but there's no denying Chiba has screen presence.
There are obvioius visual & screaming bits that come off as a satirical attempt to bring the recently deceased Bruce Lee back to life & hybridize him with Charles Bronson. Rather than a replacement for the ballet elegance of Bruce Lee, Chiba's character comes off more as a graceless thug.
Vastly more sadistic than chivalrous, the type of yakuza film that dominated in the 1960s with a gentle sad-eyed hero who only goes on the violent rampage as an inescapable last resort, is now replaced by a raging berserker.
So too the ritual & ceremony important to classic yakuza-eiga is gone from the screen. This change in the withering Japanese cinema industry caused one of the great yakuza stars of the previous decade, Koji Tsuruta, to lament strongly that the new kind of gangster film lacked "kokoro" or heart.
The heartless audiences didn't at all mind how bad it was, however, as it was incongruously also one of the best films of its specific type.
Thus was born a classic with sequels, Return of the Streetfighter (Gyakushu! Satsujin ken II, 1974) & Streetfighter Counter Attacks; aka, The Streetfighter's Final Revenge (Gyakushu! Satsujin ken III, 1974).
Both sequels live up to the first's promise of continuous violence, & all three adhere to the principle that even a thuggish bad guy can end up doing a degree of good.
As an international giant Chiba's fame quickly faded in the west except among a hard-core group of action film fans. Most of the west would not have access to many of his films unless they lived near a Japanese cinema such as existed numerously in Hawaii, Seattle, San Francisco, Sacramento, Vancouver, Toronto, & a few other cities.
In badly cut & dubbed & pirated versions, some of his films were grabbed for the first wave of the video revolution which preferred exploitation films foremost.
Even in films where he had a different character name he was frequently still in essence playing the Streetfighter.
Terror of Yakuza; aka, Okinawa Yakuza War; or, The Great Okinawa Yakuza War (Okinawa yakuza senso, 1976; the illustration near this paragraph is this film's poster) is set one year before Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972.
Chiba has an important supporting role alongside the star Hiroki Matsukata (who is heroically, grossly doomed). A crazy, scarred Shinichi Chiba kicks his way through a purely exploitative sex-&-violence extravaganza.
This one was initially banned in Okinawa because it was feared it would incite too much interest in the local yakuza or reignite the too recently historical bloodfeud which the film exploits.
His Yakuza Wolf: Murder of a Rascal or Extend My Condolences (Okami Yakuza: : Kiroshi wa Ore-ga yaru, 1972) co-starred Kyoko Enami of the Onna Tabakushi Woman Gambler series.
Chiba as the Yakuza Wolf is in a story regarding the western mafia coming to Japan, pushing the envelop of extravagant & varied sorts of violence & unlikely storyline. The best line in the whole film is, "That dirty finger of yours. Go feed it to the cats."
It spun off one sequel Yakuza Wolf 2: I Bring You Death (Okami Yakuza: Mesu neko bakuchi, 1972) co-starring Mikio Narita. In this one gunplay so rules it isn't as much fun from a martial arts point of view, but in both films some scenes approach the surreal & have been compared to the odd yakuza films of Seijun Sazuki.
Sadism requires women to be slain & much pointless mayhem to occur, without concern for justice, humanity, or fair play, the direct opposite of the chivalrous gamblers of the previous decade. There's really not much to recommend it except to folks for whom either of the magic phrases "women brutally slain" or "Sonny Chiba's innit" incites instant interest.
See also Chiba's
Detective Doberman (1977)
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