Those familiar with Sonny Chiba only from his fantastic, albeit brief, performance in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill would do well to look into the man's other films as there are a ton of great action movies out there featuring Chiba in more prominent roles doing what he does best – messing people up but good. Aside from Kill Bill, Tarantino's understandable Chiba love can also been seen in Pulp Fiction (which 'borrows' from Chiba's The Bodyguard as well as a scene in True Romance where Slater's character visits a grindhouse to take in a big screen showing of a few of the Streetfighter films, probably Chiba's best known movies in North America, the first being notorious for the fact that it was the first film slapped with an X rating based on the violence in the film and not on the sexual content. At any rate, Adness has recently started giving some of Sonny Chiba's films uncut releases in their original Japanese language and in their original aspect ratio – something that fans can be very thankful for. 1975's The Killing Machine (a.k.a. Shorinji Kenpo) is the second release in the series, following their great presentation of Shogun's Samurai.
Directed by Noribumi Suzuki, who would work with Chiba again on Roaring Fire! and Shogun's Ninja but who also directed a few sexploitation films beforehand, The Killing Machine is a very loose adaptation of Doshin So, the man who developed the Shorinji Kempo fighting style in which Chiba personally holds a first degree black belt.
During the Second World War, Doshin So (Chiba) was employed as an agent in the Japanese Secret Service. During his enlistment he learned multiple fighting styles including some Shaolin techniques. Years pass and the war ends, leaving Japan a shadow of its former self and under the control of occupying forces. So, being a nationalist, is enraged when two American officers run over a Japanese child with their jeep one day, and he breaks their legs as retribution. He functions as an outlaw for awhile, caring for and stealing food for a group of orphans and befriending a woman who is forced to prostitute herself in order to live. But as time goes on So moves forward and opens up his own Dojo where he teaches his martial arts and philosophy to many students.
With So set up and his school in full swing, it would seem things are going to go quite smoothly for the man. He and his students have even taken it upon themselves to right many of the wrongs that are still happening in their part of town (best demonstrated when Chiba cuts off the balls of a rapist and feeding them to a small stray white dog!). But soon a local mobster and his cronies want in on So's action. When he denies them and wants nothing to do with them, they strike back against some of his closest friends and leave him no choice but to fight back.
While The Killing Machine isn't going to win any awards for accuracy in its portrayal of So's life, it is a great action film with strong political undertones running deeply through its veins. The obvious Japanese disdain for the occupying American forces after WWII combined with some hatred for the Korean and Chinese who moved in on the area at the time sets the stage as a veritable boiling pot of political ugliness. It's this backdrop that allows So's character to appear a patriot in the first half of the film, and he's played as a sympathetic man who befriends orphaned children and makes sure that they have enough to eat. The film really kicks into high gear though once the school and the mobsters cross paths. Chiba becomes an instrument of vengeance, breaking arms and legs and taking down the sword wielding baddies with his bare hands and making it look as easy as snapping a twig. It's these fight scenes (and a great machine gun massacre at the beginning of the movie), some of which are backed by a killer seventies sounding 'wah chicka wah' guitar track, that carry the film. The story is decent enough but the real reason to watch the film is to see Chiba (with the occasional help from Japan Action Club member Etsuko 'Sue' Shiomi) making short work of the bad guys like a crazed animal. What The Killing Machine lacks in complex plot revelations and deep characterizations it more than makes up for with bone crunching action.
Those who have only seen The Killing Machine courtesy of the VHS release from Arena or the budget release from Brentwood and a few other 'public domain' companies (which likely used the aforementioned Arena release for their so called 'master') will see this release from Adness as a revelation. Now visible in its original aspect ratio of 2.35.1 and enhanced for anamorphic television sets, the film looks better than it ever has on any of the domestic releases thus far. While there is a minute amount of print damage in the form of the odd speck or scratch here and there, and there is a fine amount of grain visible at any given time the colors are nice and bright (aside from the intentionally drab color scheme used in a few scenes) and the flesh tones look lifelike and natural. The small amount of edge enhancement that permeates the film can't ruin the decent amount of detail brought out in this new transfer and while the picture isn't perfect, it's certainly more than acceptable.
Two audio options have been supplied for this release – the original Dolby Digital 2 Channel Mono mix and a newly re-mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix – both of which include optional English subtitles. While it might have been nice to have the English dub included for the sake of completion, you can't really fault Adness for releasing the film in its original language. As far as the subtitles go, all of the dialogue is translated without any obvious typos but there are more than a couple of crowd and group scenes where people are saying things and there are no subs on screen which is marginally annoying. In regards to the quality of the two mixes, this is one of those occasions where you'll likely want to opt for the original mono mix as the newly re-mastered 5.1 track doesn't really offer a whole lot of extra channel separation or rear channel action, it just provides slightly more bass response. Both tracks sound a little flat but for an almost thirty-year old martial arts film this can be forgiven, as the dialogue is clean and clear and mixed in appropriately against the background music and sound effects. Neither of the tracks are perfect, but at least we finally get a chance to hear Chiba do his thing in this film in his native tongue.
While Adness hasn't stacked the disc with tons of extra features like some of us had hoped that they would, there are some keen bonuses for fans of the bad man from Japan to indulge themselves with. First up are three pages of liner notes written by Tokyoscope scribe Patrick Macias. He puts the film into context by providing some basic historical information on Chiba's character in the film as well as some factoids on Chiba and Noribumi Suzuki.
Adness has also included trailers for other upcoming releases in their Sonny Chiba Collection and promo spots can be found for Killing Machine, Karate Bearfighter (yes, he does fight a bear, or at least a guy in a bear suit), Karate Bullfighter (a.k.a. Champion Of Death, and yes, he does fight a bull as well!), Karate for Life, G. I. Samurai Shogun's Samurai (a. k. a. The Yagyu Conspiracy, Black Magic Wars, The Legend of The Eight Samurai, and Resurrection of Golden Wolf. It's a nice selection of trailers, and save for G. I. Samurai, they're all presented in widescreen.
Also worth mentioning is the attractive packaging design that was used for this release – a picture of Chiba in action on the front and inside the clear case on the back of the sleeve is an image of him looking ponderous in the rain with a few clips from the film underneath him. Nice job.
While the audio and video aren't reference quality they're still pretty good and even though there could have been more extras what we do get is fun. Taking that into account with the quality of the film itself, it's easy to give The Killing Machine a much deserved "Highly Recommended" stamp, particularly for Chiba fans and martial arts movies aficionados. Viva Chiba!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.