Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Killing Machine (1975)

During World War II, martial arts expert Doshin So (Sonny Chiba in a role supposedly based on events in the life of the founder of the Shorinji Kempo style of martial arts) works as a secret agent in Manchuria for the Japanese, and is with his concept of honor and duty probably as much of a pain in the ass for his superiors as for the Chinese. So doesn't take too well to the Japanese capitulation, shooting up his superior's office with a machine gun and shouting stuff like "Japan may have surrendered, I never will".

He's not as completely a nationalist tool as he sounds, though, and acts mostly as a protector of the weak and downtrodden, regardless of their nationality.

After his return to Japan, he's trying to make ends meet in the ruins of Osaka, but his overstrained sense of justice and the mustache-twirling evilness of the local Yakuza don't make for a pleasurable life. While he's protecting the local war orphans and saving women from prostitution So gets into trouble that could possibly get him hanged when he breaks some (of course evil, child-harming) American bones, but a suddenly materializing Tetsuro Tanba saves him and sends him to Shochiku to make himself a new - and hopefully more peaceful - life.

There he somehow manages to scrounge together enough money to found a martial arts school whose teachings are based on the things So had learned from the Shaolin Temple in China. His dojo effectively works as a way to keep other male war survivors (although we will see some women at his school, too) from getting in trouble and killing themselves one way or the other.

But So just can't keep his head down when confronted with the local Yakuza gang who make people's lives even harder than they already are. At first, there's just a little friendly brawling, but when the Yakuza rape a schoolgirl, So grabs himself a pair of scissors and does some amateur surgery on the main perpetrator. This isn't something the gangsters will just let sit, and soon the situation escalates.

A film directed by 70s exploitation god/madman Norifumi Suzuki with the glorious Sonny Chiba playing its hero sounds like a surefire winner to me. Alas, The Killing Machine is far from being as good as I had hoped for.

Mostly, it's just a mess of a movie, cursed with a script that can't decide what the film is actually about (a man finding a more peaceful self? The state of mind of post-war Japan? Sonny hitting people?) or to which genre it belongs. While title and cast promise your typical "Sonny Chiba plays a real life martial artist in an outrageous interpretation of said martial artist's life" film, The Killing Machine mostly turns out to be an incredibly overwrought melodrama, trying to do for post-war Japan what Gone With The Wind did for the American South. And it succeeds - it is nearly as hypocritical as its American model, and even a bit more confused about its own political position. Which isn't to say that I don't understand the mixed emotions the post-war years produced in the Japanese cinema of the 70s or the very real suffering many Japanese people had to go through - the problem is that the film's melodramatic vein so overstates the case that it spits into the face of the real suffering, making it seem trite and trivial. Karate Bullfighter looks downright balanced in comparison.

The film's loose, episodic structure doesn't do much to improve this impression. Nothing here really hangs together in any meaningful sense, character development is as disjointed as the film is confused about its own themes.

Still, even this mess has its good sides. Chiba is as scenery-chewingly good as he always is, the small amount of action scenes is competently choreographed and while you can't say that Suzuki does anything that helps the film hold together, he still wastes a number of beautiful shots on scenes that just don't deserve it.

As disappointing as The Killing Machine is, it at least should encourage you to seek out better films about the same themes, say Karate Bullfighter or Karate Bearfighter to see the Killing Machine done right, or Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor And Humanity (and its sequels) as a much more complex and honest analysis of Japanese post-war society.



Samuel Wilson said...

Killing Machine has its moments but I definitely agree with your alternate recommendations. The Mas Oyama films are more focused (though the animal fights are goofy) and the Battles series are classics.

houseinrlyeh said...

When in doubt, I prefer the goofy to the overly melodramatic.