Posts Tagged ‘Sonny Chiba’

Movie Reviews 425 – Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler (1972)

February 21, 2020

There is a lot going on in Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler besides the mouthful for a title.

All I knew when I picked up this DVD was that it starred Sonny Chiba which was enough for me to give it a whirl. Little did I know that not only was this not your typical Chiba fight fest, but that I would be seduced by the charms of Meiko Kaji a starlet previously unknown to me yet celebrated and well established, perhaps rivaling the Sister Street Fighter herself, Etsuko “Sue” Shihomi. As it turns out that comparison turned out to be eerily prophetic with more substance than I could have imagined. But more on that later…

I confess that I never saw the original Wandering Ginza Butterfly, but I can dispel the notion that you must see that beforehand in order to enjoy this sequel. While the plot is an offshoot from that film, the story is self contained enough to understand and there are plenty of flashback scenes to put it all into context.

Nami Higuchi (Kaji), orphaned when her father died while she was a still young girl and now a professional gambler, has been searching for her father’s killer. Coincidentally she comes to the aid of a young woman, Hanae (Tamase Mitsukawa), who was sold to a mob ruled Ginza social club for prostitution by her own debt ridden gambler of a father. As luck would have it, Nami bumps into her childhood best friend Mioko (Yukie Kagawa) who is also running a social club and gladly offers to help out and hire Hanae herself. But unknown to Nami, Mioko has taken a different path in life and is now working for a mob boss, and Hanae soon finds herself in the exact situation that Nami tried to save her from. Worse yet, this boss is the very one Nami is seeking.

As I mentioned, this is not so much a martial arts film as a more dramatic action film. The story is multi-layered with a number of interesting characters which all mesh together nicely as the story progresses. While Nami is relatively stoic (apparently a trait common in many of Kaji’s roles), Chiba, playing a stutter prone, carefree gambler (uncharacteristic of his usual intense portrayals) balances things out nicely. There are plenty of other enjoyable characters including a gambler that was tasked to cheat Nami but who ends up looking to her to be his mentor. Another is Chiba’s ever smoking partner who also tries to help out and at one point the two men, having rescued all the girls, attempt to give them etiquette lessons including how to use a bidet.

Be forewarned that the first few minutes of the film has plenty of boobs and for a moment I thought that this was going to be one of those Pinky films as this is indeed a Toei studio production, renown for that subgenre. What there is plenty of is gambling. Unfortunately I could not understand anything about the Mahjong tile game in which players also hide a tile under a mat. But it was clear who was winning, who was losing, and who was cheating (which was often the case).

Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill will immediately connect with many aspects aside from the obvious Sonny “Hattori Hanzo” Chiba. Digging into Kaji’s career I was delighted to learn that she was the singer of the “The Flower of Carnage” song on the Kill Bill soundtrack (taken from another one of her films (Lady Snowblood). While the final battle is not as army sized as Uma’s Bride restaurant free for all, there are some similarities including gratuitous amounts of spurting blood, as was a late-night garden battle.

Chiba only brawls during the final battle and using subdued moves compared to his later films moves at that. This is not a film that wows audiences looking for martial arts prowess. But don’t let that deter you from watching it unless that is all you are looking for.

My Synapse Films DVD features an interview with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi who not only directed the Wandering Ginza Butterfly films but was also the director of the Sister Street Fighter franchise and, not surprisingly, a number of Pinky films, although the latter aren’t discussed in the interview.

I will be keeping an eye out for that first Wandering Ginza Butterfly and other Meiko Kaji films to remedy tardiness and delinquency in recognizing this jewel.

Movie Reviews 45 – The Sister Street Fighter Collection

April 14, 2012

Popping in a disc from the Sister Street Fighter collection is about as effective as taking a trip in a time machine. You’re instantly transported to the mid 70’s with garish paisley clothing patterns, polyester fabrics, funky music and a newfound love for martial arts put that genre at the top of the non-Hollywood movie lineup. Bruce Lee was king of the hill, while Sonny Chiba could be considered his runner up as a Kung-Fu star. But Sonny had even more to offer with the formation of his Japan Action Club (JAC) to train acting and martial arts in tandem and with the success of Sonny’s ‘Street Fighter’ series of movies, the Toei film studio wanted to capitalize with a female lead. Enter Etsuko “Sue” Shihomi a JAC student and co-star in the original Street Fighter as The Sister Street Fighter.

The Sister Street Fighter Collection package is a box set, with individual DVDs for each of the four movies in the series. The set features nice movie poster images that adorn outer jackets and a small booklet with a little extra information. Sadly, aside from the movies themselves, the only extra features to be found are the movie trailers.

Sister Street Fighter (1974)
When her brother Mansei, a cop, gets nabbed by an international drug smuggling cartel, Koryu Lee (Shihomi as the Sister Street Fighter), a martial arts champion herself, is enlisted to seek out the perpetrators to not only save her brother but to bring down the cartel. Upon arriving in Japan, her first stop is the martial arts school she and her brother were trained. Aided on occasion, and sometimes mysteriously by Hibiki (Sonny Chiba), and another female from the school (Emi Hayakawa), Koryo must somehow penetrate the fortified stronghold of the mob. This brings about the first trademark of the Sister Street Fighter series; the notion that the mob boss in question has a stable of fighters at his beck and call, usually an assortment of international fighters, each sporting a national garb or other stereotype or ethnic costume. The African American, the African tribesman, Chinese Imperial warrior,…. you get the picture. In this particular case the more absurd ‘henchman’ is actually a group or five preteen girls in some sort of tattered african jungle clothing (not sure if they are supposed to be pygmies, but they sure look ridiculous trying to fight). Sadly, Sonny Chiba does not play the role Terry Tsuguri (a.k.a The Street Fighter) and has little more than a cameo role. He does however kick some mighty big ass in the fight finale. I like the way the movie occasionally undergoes a freeze frame to denote the particular form of martial art or weaponry about to come in play in a battle. The story is bare bones but the action sequences and Japanese curiosities more that make up for it.

Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread (1974)
In the opening sequence a man is ambushed by a group of thugs when Koryu comes along and beats them off. In his dying moments the man takes out one of his eyeballs and hands it to Koryo with a message to take it to a certain professor. The fake eyeball contains a micro-film inside and it turns out the man was cop and the film was evidence against a diamond smuggling ring. Upon meeting the professor Kuryo learns that his daughter, Birei, has been nabbed by the smugglers. So it’s off to Tokyo we go and another visit to her old school. Koryu gets more bad news when she finds out that Birei is the mob boss’ girlfriend, and that Koryu’s own sister is also in league with the gang. In a startling scene we learn that the diamonds are being smuggled by being surgically implanted into the buttocks of girls that are also enslaved as prostitutes. Birei, an expert gem cutter by trade, oversees the diamond operation. There are three brothers that are the leaders of the usual goon squad of strongmen used by the mob boss and each of the three vie for the honor of being the one assigned to take down Koryu. But at the last minute a mysterious top-notch fighter appears declaring his superiority to the boss and placing himself ahead of the three brothers. In the end it doesn’t really matter as there is the requisite big final battle and everything turns out OK. Kinda. No Sonny Chiba at all but still plenty of neat fighting scenes.

The Return of Sister Street Fighter (1975)
Watching this third installment I was amazed at how similar it was to it’s predecessor, Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread. Seriously. Change the fact that the woman she was seeking from being a jewelry expert held hostage to a chemical expert held hostage and 95% of the rest of the movie storyline is the same. The other few changes include the fact that the chemical expert also has a sister under the control of the mob in order to support a drug habit and the fact that the chemical expert also has a little girl wondering where her mommy is throughout the movie. Other than that the movies are pretty much interchangeable including a scene in which Koryo is tied up and hung upside down and about to die in front an army of henchmen with the big boss right there. In both cases sister street fighter miraculously finds a way to get out of her bounds and make an incredible mid air twist to land on her feet. If it wasn’t for the fact that one is an indoor dark scene and the other was outdoors in daylight I would have sworn that it was the same shot. Other similarities include a strip club scene, a climbing wall fight and a battle in a remote mountain green space. Even the mysterious new fighter demanding to have the honour of getting Koryu for the boss is replayed here with the same actor. The only difference is that the boss actually makes his own men fight one another this time to see who gets the honor. Don’t get me wrong, its still a good movie and fun to watch. I just wished the creators would have gone for a more original movie.

Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (1976)
A distinct departure from the previous Sister Street Fighter movies, Sue does not even play the role of Koruy. She is now Kiku, the daughter of a kimono salesman and his intimidating and controlling wife who is trying to get Kiku married. But the overall story involving cops chasing after international drug smugglers (using fish and fine art statues to hide the drugs in this time, not human butts!) and a few innocent people involved with the trade is pretty much par for the rest of the series. Michi and her brother Jim are from Okinawa and good friends of Kiku. Although they are brother and sister from the same mother, Jim’s father was an African American and Michi is pure Japanese. The mixed race siblings were ostracized and abused as kids in Okinawa but now want to make enough money to go back. Unfortunately, Jim got involved with the drug smugglers who operate out of a movie studio. Kiku’s parents have a garden party one day where one of the guest’s, Tagaki, is really an undercover cop that Kiku’s dad tries to set up as a suitor for her. Another guest is a movie producer that we know is really a drug kingpin. Kiku sees Jim follow an American drug enforcement agent wandering off from the party and then witnesses Jim attacking the agent. When Tagaki tries to intervene, Kiku stops him which allows Jim to flee. Only then does she realize that Tagaki is really the head of a police division trying to stop the drug smugglers. After that it’s all action and chase scenes. On thing that struck me right from the start was that there is a lot more comedy in this film, most of it fairly funny. But there are a few negatives as well. There is a condescending scene in which Tagaki tells Kiku how better off she would be just being a regular woman raising kids and cooking for a husband. The finale battle takes place in a movie studio and at one point Kiku is found tied to a log being fed to a cutting blade like some James Bond movie scene. You’d think that she would manage to extricate herself especially after all the almost magical moves she makes in the other movies. Unfortunately it is Tagaki that rescues her which begs the question of who is supposed to be the star in this Sister Street Fighter movie. The movie then ends in an awkward seemingly mid spool scene with Tagaki dying in Kiku’s arms. While we do not see Sue fighting as much as in the earlier movies, she’s in top form artistically from the martial arts point of view and as an actress. In short, she never looked better. Look out for a cool mid-air costume change during the middle of a fight. Sue never looked better, but sadly this was the end of the line for the Sister Street Fighter series.