1975's Karate Bullfighter, released in North America theatrically the same year under the title Champion of Death perhaps to cash in on the tournament fight scenes that highlight the film, is a loose adaptation of a part of Matutatsu Oyama's life story. Oyama was Chiba's Sensai which makes him a fitting choice to play his real life teacher in the first of three big screen adaptations of his life story. The film takes its name from the legend revolving around Oyama in which he apparently proved his fighting prowess by killing full grown (and glass bottles – something he would demonstrate on screen again during a press conference in The Bodyguard) bulls using only his bare hands and his karate skills.
The film begins with Oyama arriving at a local fighting tournament dressed in rags. The locals think him a vagrant but this doesn't stop a local karate entrepreneur from wanting to groom the young man into something more. Unfortunately, he blows it when he gets wasted one night and kills a man who probably didn't really deserve such a fate. To make up for his heinous deed, Oyama leaves the competitive karate scene and heads out to the country to restore his honor by helping out at the farm of the family of the man who he just killed.
Oyama attempts to live a peaceful life and to put his rough past behind him, focusing on the farm and trying to do the right thing, stopping along the way to fight a bull who is running rampant through the town. His past catches up with him however, when a team of trained killers show up at the farmhouse to avenge the dead man's death. Oyama is forced to defend himself and ends up returning to the world he once disavowed, to prove his worth as a karate master.
While Chiba is given more to do in this film than just run around and kick ass (something that he's very proficient at), the action scenes are definitely the high points in the film. Chiba had worked with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi and he knew how to make Chiba look good on screen. While he spends much of the film brooding over his regretful past and stewing in his misery, he's never less than an extremely imposing figure and when he busts loose and busts out in the final act of the film, even though we know it's coming, his character becomes a behemoth, a larger than life fighter using his skills to the best of his ability.
Not only are the tournament scenes fantastic – Yamaguchi proves he knows how to film a fight scene, making everything look, sound and feel simply savage in this film – but the Oyama versus rampant bull scene is one of those pivotal moments in Chiba's career that defines him as a fighter. While the marketing team for the film used this image to promote the film with some very colorful one sheets (one of which proudly adorns the walls of my home), the artists rendition of Chiba killing the huge animal cannot do justice to the film where Chiba relieves the beast of its horn in a flurry of bright red arterial spray. The man who fights like an animal single handedly defeats an animal, somehow bringing the film full circle in a scene that, while totally unrealistic in the way that it is portrayed and done with some rather low budget looking special effects, somehow manages to seem one hundred percent appropriate for the film and its lead.
Previously released as a completely barebones DVD from United American Video under the title Champion Of Death, the film was improperly framed on a transfer that suffered from bad compression artifacts and constant print damage. Adness' newly re-mastered 2.35.1 anamorphic release presents the film in its complete uncut form in its proper aspect ratio restoring some noticeably absent picture information on the left and right side of the frame. Print damage is almost completely non-existent and aside from a very natural looking coat of grain the image is very clean and highly detailed.
Again improving on the dubbed United American Video release, Adness presents the film in its original Japanese mono track with an optional Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Both tracks have removable English subtitles that are error free and easy to read. The mono mix is clean and free of all bit the tiniest but of hiss in one or two spots and the 5.1 mix, though rather artificial sounding, fills in the room nicely using the rear channels to direct the action around you as it happens. The dialogue is mainly confined to the front center speaker with the surrounds and sub used to fill out the mix and this track does so nicely, improving on the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix that Adness supplied on their earlier release of The Killing Machine.
While hardly a deluxe edition, Adness does supply some interesting if familiar extra features. Once again, Tokyoscope scribe Patrick Macias supplies three pages of liner notes in the form of an insert tucked neatly inside the keepcase. Macias details the history of the man that the film is based on as well as he real life relationship with Sonny Chiba. His though not only informative but written with a sense of fun to them, not taking too high brow an approach to the film and staying grounded in the reality that this is a cheaply made exploitation film (though it's a particularly good one).
Adness has also included trailers for other releases in their Sonny Chiba Collection and promo spots can be found for not only Karate Bullfighter, but for Killing Machine, Karate Bearfighter, 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 as well. It's a nice selection of trailers, and save for G. I. Samurai, they're all presented in widescreen.
Once again, Adness has done a nice job on the packaging for this release as well. The flipside of the cover art reproduces various versions of the films poster art as well as a couple of still pictures of Chiba with his mentor. Nicely done.
Karate Bullfighter is a fantastic film regardless of how based in reality it is. Chiba chews the scenery as well as through the local bovine population with ease and the film stands out as a great showcase for his aggressive fighting style and spectacular tough guy posturing. Highly recommended.
This review originally appeared at DVD Maniacs and is reprinted here with permission.
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.