Shinichi Chiba (A.K.A. Sonny) became a star in the global kung fu fever inspired by Bruce Lee and the international success of his unfortunate swansong, Enter the Dragon. Like many of his Hong Kong peers, Chiba starred in an awful lot of movies and not many of them good – however, he did star in a series that elevated him to a level of international stardom that was instrumental in installing him as a favourite in grindhouse cinemas and cult audiences hearts. That was the Street Fighter series, which also became notorious for being the first movie to get an X-rating off the back of its violence. The mid-1970s saw exploitation cinema at its apex, so, Street Fighter, the movie that was part of the wave of Brucesploitation titles coming after the untimely death of Bruce Lee, was itself ‘exploited’. Or to put it a gentler way, Toei produced a spin-off; Enter Sister Street Fighter and Etsuko Shihomi.
Wolf Cop & Wandering Ginza Butterfly director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi helmed three 3 entries into the series while the fourth, Fifth Level Fist, was helmed by Shigehiro Ozawa – all of them feature on a new Arrow Video collection. The Yamaguchi titles all form a neat trilogy whereas the fourth entry doesn’t fit in, the only consistent is star Etsuko Shihomi (or Sue Shihomi as she was known internationally) as a completely different character altogether.
The three Yamaguchi entries all feature Etsuko Shihomi as is Li Koryu, a female martial artist of mixed Japanese-Chinese descent who is forever caught up in Gangsters plans; gangsters who have a penchant for collecting scores of unique martial artists. Each martial artist will have a Bio pop-up on-screen stating their name and martial art of choice, it’s a wonderful touch. Just as wonderful, in movie number 2, Hanging by a Thread, the collection of martial artists are all practicing in what looks like a local sports hall. Low budget and quick turnarounds dictate such choices, especially when movie one was released in 1974 and movie three in 1975. A similar common byproduct of such quickly produced Japanese exploitation series sees each movie act out the same beats over and over again with subtle differences. Performers do change from title to title, however, they also return too. In Sister Street Fighter and Hanging by a Thread, Masashi Ishibashi returns as two completely different henchmen as does the familiar face of Yasuaki Kurata in 2 & 3 on the more heroic end of the spectrum.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on the first entry as to discuss them all would have me repeating myself ad nauseam. In 1974’s Sister Street Fighter, Koryu’s (Shihomi) Brother goes missing while investigating an international drug ring and crime syndicate so by the laws of martial arts cinema she is called upon to continue the investigation and find out what happened to her sibling. Siding with her fellow Shorinji Kempo students, Koryu gets a little help on the side by, Mr. Street Fighter himself, Sonny Chiba. Almost immediately she comes face to face with the same syndicate who her brother was investigating and what follows is an almost frenetic series of fights. This is exactly where the series deserves its plaudits, while not particularly well-shot or choreographed, it never looks down of Koryu because she is a woman. She is an undiscovered, forgotten icon of Japanese cinema. And, in all shameful honesty, powerful female figures are few and far between in 1970s Japan – other than Meiko Kaji you would be hard pressed to find many of note.
Shihomi is not an inferior martial artist, on the contrary, she is every bit Sonny Chiba’s equal. Whats-more she is a talented martial artist, one who should be discussed alongside your Cynthia Rothrock’s, Jeeja Yayin’s and Michelle Yeoh’s, and seeing her kick all the henchmen to death is true unadulterated fun. I’d like to group her with (Ninja trilogy) Sho Kosugi as star’s who never had a fair shot.
Also fun is the audacity of the exploitation. Sister Street Fighter is literally a mash-up of Enter the Dragon and Game of Death to the extent that there are a few scenes that have the exact same basement as that of Bruce Lee’s most famous scenes. The group of martial artists that she takes on are defeated easily showing the gulf in power between those who are pure in their martial arts and those who sell out to the highest bidder. The styles and characters who she faces off against are a joy to behold. We have a group of Muay Thai women dressed in Leopard print dresses with white tribal masks on their faces who are a particular favourite; as is the nunchaku wielder who struggles to flip his chosen implement of death around without blinking furiously, or the harpoon gun user who is killed in the most inept way possible. The way I framed that may give the impression that I think the poor quality of this production is a reason for me to bash it, no, on the contrary, I am bringing up these things as they typify the audacity of trying to strive for things that are beyond their abilities and being utterly charming in doing so. It’s a common tale with exploitation cinema – the execution may be bad but the spirit in which it was made is what you fall in love with.
The Street Fighter was the first X rated action movie (for violence), as I mentioned earlier. Sister Street Fighter, again, is not one to be outclassed. In movie 1, Sonny Chiba punches a hole in the stomach of one of the syndicate’s members who isn’t a martial artist and the man who instigates a rather sleazy sex scene involving a young woman held captive. If nothing else, Japanese exploitation movies do have an inherent sleaze factor after all. In movie 2, Kurata hits someone in the stomach and the next shot has them trying, in vain, to keep their intestines in. To return to the sleaze factor again, one of the ways in which the second movie differs itself is by having the antagonist smuggle diamonds by cutting into prostitutes buttocks and stuffing them in there. An utterly sleazy and ridiculous M.O, if ever there was one whilst also being too goofy to take seriously.
It is bewildering why Arrow Video would release the Sister Street Fighter series before reissuing the likes of Stray Cat Rock, or looking into the Wandering Ginza Butterly saga or even Sonny Chiba’s own Street Fighter series. However, in doing that, Arrow has once again put out an unknown force, equipped it with fantastic box art by Kungfubob O’Brie, an excellent remastering and the usual league of extras. My cynicism is where I sat before watching these movies. Now, I can say that by putting out something with none of the pressure or expectations of those aforementioned series, Arrow Video have delivered something of a shocking left hook and turned this cynic from utterly oblivious to a fan and if that isn’t the purpose of labels like Arrow Video and 88 Films, what is?