Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sister Street Fighter (1974)

The Hong Kong police has lost contact with one of their undercover agents who was trying to get the goods on the up and coming drug trading organization of a man named Kakuzaki (Bin Amatsu).

The best way to find out what happened is obviously to send their agent Mansei's (Hiroshi Miyauchi) sister Koryu (Etsuko Shihomi) to Yokohama where he was last seen. She is after all a martial arts expert and half Japanese with an uncle and cousins in Yokohama and therefore the perfect choice to catch drug dealers. It certainly isn't a job for the police.

The only actual information the HK cops give Koryu is a way to meet Fanshin (Xiu-Rong Xie), their other agent in on the project.

It doesn't take much time after her arrival in Japan until Koryu has to violently deal with the first of Kakuzaki's cronies. That's not too difficult for her, but getting actually helpful information or just keeping Fanshin alive are much more difficult prospects.

At least, Koryu has the help of her brother's former martial arts school, which includes the help of Emi Hayakawa and the gut-ripping talents of a guy named Hibiki (Sonny Chiba in a long-ish guest role).

Koryu will need the reinforcements, too, because Kakuzaki owns a private zoo of martial artists (that's his description, not mine), and also secretly has his grip on the fighter's uncle. Of course, in the long run there's no problem that can't be solved by persistence and hitting people in the face.

After the success of The Street Fighter with Sonny Chiba and some other films in that style, it must have looked like a good idea to Toei studios to make as many martial arts films in as short a time as possible. Chiba was certainly game for anything, always willing to do his duty as a guest star, at least in films that made use of the members of his Japan Action Club like Sister Street Fighter's Etsuko Shihomi. And what studio would resist a group of young, athletic, well-trained actors like that? Toei certainly didn't.

Etsuko Shihomi is one of my favourites among these protégés of Chiba, with her easy confidence and the determined professionalism she shows in her fights. The Toei school of exploitational martial arts cinema lived or died on that sort of charisma. With scripts that usually didn't leave much room for the finer aspects of acting or anything amounting to subtlety, acting in these films often became a thing of people dressing up in outrageous outfits, doing athletics and showing physical presence, even more so than in other martial arts films.

This works out nicely for Sister Street Fighter and also fits the rather unsubtle yet from time to time manically interesting directorial style of its director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi. He would have slaughtered any slow and ponderous scene anyway. Yamaguchi's work here is fine if not exactly inspired. It's the usual assortment of close-ups of eyes and pained expressions, peculiar camera angles and some really fine semi-psychedelic lighting (especially in the pre-finale). The set design, on the other hand, is full-blown Japanese mid-70s eccentricity with some very strange ideas about interior decoration of hidden lairs and will surely affect anyone's mind - for better or worse.

Compared to the Street Fighter films, the action here doesn't start out as insane, but slowly and surely increases from friendly punching and kicking matches into the bone-crunching, blood-spattering style of non-realist martial arts Toei films were good at.

In comparison to Hong Kong or Taiwanese productions of the time, the fight choreography in Japanese martial arts films was always less complex and less acrobatic, but the Japanese films tended to make up for their lack in these aspects by ramping up the blood and the violent effects. Sister Street Fighter's highpoints of silly brutality are both in the grand finale, with Chiba ripping out someone's guts with his bare hands and Shihomi re-orienting another guy's head rather dubiously. So that's alright.

When it comes to weirdness, Sister Street Fighter again loses out against the Chiba film, but it doesn't feel right to complain about a film not being weird enough when it contains drug smugglers transporting their heroin in the form of wigs ("Save the wigs!"), a blowgun assassin with a mohawk or an evil former priest in full preacher garb who murders his victims with a harpoon gun (or is it a bolt pistol?). So that's alright, too.

What distinguishes Sister Street Fighter (and many of Toei's films of the era) is a singular mixture of exploitational values (in this case only one pair of breasts - not Shihomi's -, some drug withdrawal fun and a not too gruesome rape scene), weird yet typical-for-the-era visual obsessions, martial arts fully concentrated one the bone-crunching and the blood-spattering and a wild and often uncontrolled imagination. That combination is more than alright for me.

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