Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dragon Princess (1976)

It's 1966, and New York City has a major crime problem. The City goes for the obvious solution - hire a Japanese karate instructor to teach the cops martial arts. But there are two different instructors vying for the honour of teaching police men how to cripple their victims without guns. On one side is the intensely honourable Okinawan Kazuma Higaki (Sonny Chiba! in one of his patented cameo roles), but on the other glares evil bastard from Tokyo Hironobu Nikaido (Bin Amatsu). Higaki would be perfectly willing for the police to make a decision and just get on with things, but his enemy isn't so laid-back. When Nikaido loses a duel Higaki never even wanted, he lets his three pet assassins loose, crippling and nearly killing Higaki in front of his little daughter Yumi.

For some reason, Nikaido decides to allow Higaki to live, at least if he leaves town. Thinking about the future of his daughter, Higaki agrees and moves to LA. A bit bitter and broken, Higaki raises his daughter (soon enough to be played by house favourite Etsuko Shihomi) the martial arts training way, so that she will be able to avenge the family honour and "the purity of karate" on Nikaido. It's about as happy and satisfying a childhood for the girl as you'd expect. When Yumi punches her father too hard during training and he dies, it's time for her to go to Tokyo - to where Nikaido has returned years ago to become the Big Man of karate culture - and set her vengeance in motion.

Obviously, Yumi's enemy still uses the same trio of assassins, and just as obviously, it won't be easy for our heroine to kill them. At least there's another nice young man (Yasuaki Kurata) infiltrating Nikaido's dojo who's also quite angry at her enemies to help her out when need be.

Dragon Princess might not be the best martial arts film produced by Toei featuring Etsuko Shihomi and/or Sonny Chiba, but given how many great (or at least greatly entertaining) films these two made in the 70s and 80s, that shouldn't be much of a deterrent to anybody.

This one is still much too entertaining to be mediocre, but the mandatory madness of Toei's films in this particular genre is very subdued; in fact, if not for the sputtering mad New Yorker beginning, there wouldn't be enough madness in the movie to even use the word. Even the assassin trio is rather quotidian for a martial arts movie - I mean, honestly, if the worst you got is a blind (thanks, Sonny!) assassin who can be driven mad by a bunch of little bells, you're the straight man in this genre.

Fortunately, madness is not all I like about Toei's martial arts movies of the period, and Dragon Princess' director Yutaka Kohira fulfils all other stylistic wishes to the best of his abilities. So yes, there are scenes of Chiba, Shihomi and Kurata being 70s cool while Toei funk plays on the soundtrack, there are sudden spurts of psychedelic directing flourishes in form of anti-naturalist (but pretty) colour choices in the sets, bizarre framing decisions and some really dubious uses of tinting. The film also shows the mild distractibility (why not put a fight scene in here? what do you mean, there's no plot reason for it to be here?) I've grown to love in its kind.

It's a bit disappointing that the movie doesn't do much with Yumi's early reluctance to do karate, but on the other hand, films about reluctant fighters often tend to make their protagonists look not so much like people in true doubt about their way in life, but like lazy douches who wouldn't help an old woman who collapses right in front of them back on her feet again. And who would want to see that in a movie that ends with Etsuko Shihomi punching a guy's lungs in although she has a broken arm?


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